Why the Hesitance to Expunge Marijuana Convictions in L.A.?

A growing chorus of California counties have said they will automatically expunge past marijuana convictions in the wake of statewide cannabis legalization. But as we’ve noted previously, Los Angeles County has been a noticeable outlier. Last month, District Attorney Jackie Lacey announced that her department would not begin the process of reviewing and erasing marijuana convictions absent a petition from the affected parties.

Capital & Main’s Matt Tinoco now looks at some of the reasons behind Lacey’s decision, as well as what the county is doing to help clear the records of those who have committed crimes that no longer exist.

Lacey’s problem is one of scale. There are wildly varying estimates of marijuana convictions that should be expunged: San Francisco authorities have identified nearly 5,000 felonies alone, dating back to 1975, and Lacey’s office estimates that 40,000 felonies have been recorded in Los Angeles since 1993; L.A.’s public defender’s office claims there are about 200,000 felony and misdemeanor convictions in the county eligible for expunging. Going through those old case files and evaluating whether they qualify for resentencing or expungement takes time and resources that might not be immediately available.

Less than two weeks after Lacey issued her statement, however, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a motion announcing that it intends to take steps towards the meaningful criminal-justice reform provided under Prop. 64. That motion, pushed by supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Hilda Solis, instructs several county agencies, including the district attorney’s office, to collaborate and draft a plan for addressing the thousands of cannabis-related convictions in the county, as well as ensuring greater equity in the ever-evolving landscape of legal cannabis.

“The war on drugs led to decades-long racial disparities in cannabis-related arrests and convictions,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said when the motion passed. “We have a responsibility now to seek widespread reclassification and resentencing for those with minor cannabis convictions on their records, including the destruction of court records for youth.”

Lacey has since changed the tenor of her response on the matter, as demonstrated by an email she sent to Capital & Main.

“In response to the board’s motion, the District Attorney’s Office is committed to working with the Public Defender’s Office and other county departments to create an equitable solution that will make it easier for people seeking to reduce or dismiss prior convictions involving marijuana to get the legal relief to which they are entitled under Proposition 64.”

The goal, looking forward, is for the district attorney’s office, working with several other county agencies, to have a plan ready for the supervisors to consider by June. But exactly how the county is going to do that remains an open question.

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