Technology meets law and order to help dismiss thousands of marijuana-related convictions dating back to 1975 in San Francisco.
The San Francisco District Attorney’s office announced on Monday that 8,132 convictions will be dismissed thanks to a computer algorithm that automatically scanned court records.
“This makes San Francisco the first county in the country to complete the automated marijuana record clearance process,” said a statement from the office of San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón
The DA’s office teamed up with Code For America — a nonprofit company using technology to improve the government — to develop the computer program to identify cases that are eligible for dismissal since California passed a law in 2016 allowing recreational marijuana use.
Since that law, Proposition 64, passed, people whose past crimes would now not be penalized in the same way could petition to have their convictions overturned or reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor. But it was up to the individual to petition the court on their own, a process that could be both time-consuming and costly. In 2018, only 23 people in San Francisco filed petitions, according to Gascón.
Gascón announced last year that his office would proactively look into the cases to determine eligibility and in May teamed up Code For America to start the process of developing the algorithm.
While sifting manually through thousands of court records would have been time-consuming, the development of the algorithm cut the process down to minutes.
“Using technology, we have been able to proactively bring greater racial equity and fairness to marijuana legalization in California,” Gascón said in a press release Monday.
“I am thrilled to see other counties and states following suit by offering similar relief in their communities. It’s the right thing to do.”
The cleared records will help people gain employment and be approved for housing and other opportunities they might have been denied because of their criminal records.
“If you are the mom or dad who wants to participate in the kids’ school activities and they’re being told you can’t go to that field trip because you have a felony conviction because you sold a nickel bag in the Tenderloin 10 years ago, that’s the people that we care about,” said Gascón.
“This partnership also helps to address wrongs caused by the failed war on drugs, felt most strongly by communities of color.” the press release added. “In San Francisco, approximately 33% of all dismissed convictions involved African American people, and 27% involved Latinx people.”
The cases will now be sent to court for the dismissal and sealing.
Gascon decided last year to retroactively apply Proposition 64 to felony and misdemeanor cases back to 1975. Cases prior to ’75 can still be dismissed by the district attorney, but defendants in those cases must contact the DA’s office to initiate a review.
Code For America is hoping this pilot program will be picked up by other cities and counties to expunge eligible convictions.
“Contact with the criminal justice system should not be a life sentence, so we’ve been working to reimagine the record clearance process,” Jennifer Pahlka, Code for America founder and executive director, said in a statement.”This new approach, which is both innovative and common sense, changes the scale and speed of justice and has the potential to ignite change across the country.”
Gascón did mention his office isn’t able to notify everyone who will have their cases dismissed.
“We’re hoping that those that understand that they may be subject to this can then call us and say, ‘Hey, is my conviction cleared?'”