Across the United States, laws that have legalized cannabis have also paved the way for those with past marijuana convictions to clear their records. This process, known as criminal record expungement, has been a key part of marijuana legislation seeking to address the past harms of prohibition and criminalization. But not every legal-weed state has been clear about exactly how people should go about clearing their records. And with so many minor drug crimes on the books, many district attorneys say they just don’t have the resources to identify all the cases eligible for expungement. But San Francisco District attorney George Gascón has a solution: technology.
Despite Eligibility, Only 23 People Have Filed for Expungement in San Francisco—Until Now
When California voters said yes to Proposition 64 in 2016, they not only broadly legalized cannabis. They also eliminated a bevy of marijuana-related crimes. Furthermore, those eliminations apply retroactively. Based on available data, analysts estimated some 200,000-plus past marijuana-related convictions would be eligible for expungement or reduction.
What the law didn’t set up, however, was an official mechanism or guidance on how to get those convictions erased. Those with the resources to do so paid attorneys to figure it out for them. A few hundred people, according to public records, hired the lawyers and paid the court fees and filed the petitions needed to get their records cleared. That is, a few hundred statewide.
In San Francisco, just 23 people had hired lawyers and paid court fees to expunge or reduce their convictions. In other words, less than one person a month since cannabis become legal in 2016. Recognizing the problem, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón announced in January 2018 that his office would devote considerable time and resources to sifting through decades of past criminal cases to identify eligible marijuana convictions. Just over a year later, Gascón is announcing that San Francisco is the first county in California to achieve full compliance on the issue of expungement. And he’s crediting the nonprofit group Code for America for making it happen.
A Computer Algorithm is About to Erase 9,300 Marijuana Convictions in San Francisco—Automatically
In May 2018, a few months into his office’s efforts to identify eligible cases, Gascón partnered with Code for America. Code for America is a San Francisco nonprofit with a mission to utilize technology to improve government efficiency. And for San Francisco’s district attorney’s office, it did exactly that.
Code for America director Jennifer Pahlka said the group’s coders developed a simple computer algorithm they named “Clear My Record”. Inputing criminal case data, the algorithm quickly identifies cases eligible for expungement or reduction. Then, it automatically fills out the necessary forms and files them with the courts.
No hiring attorneys, no paying court fees and no filing petitions or completing paperwork. In fact, the “Clear My Record” algorithm will modify eligible cases without the people with convictions doing anything. Those with eligible marijuana charges may never even realize Code for America’s program cleared their record.
From January, when Gascón started sifting through cases, to May, his office identified 1,000 that were eligible. Since partnering with Code for America, Gascón’s office has identified 8,132 additional cases. All told, “Clear My Record” will expunge or reduce more than 9,300 cases dating back to 1975, all without the person with the record having to do anything.
Technology Could Clear Hundreds of Thousands of Minor Cannabis Convictions
The success of Code for America’s “Clear My Record” algorithm has led Gascón to evangelize its effectiveness around the country. Along with Pahlka, Gascon is calling on prosecutors in weed-legal states to adopt Code for America’s technology. Indeed, algorithms can completely transform the process of expunging past marijuana crimes, and thus the landscape of criminal justice reform across the country.