KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When Missouri legalized recreational marijuana, it also promised to automatically expunge marijuana-related misdemeanors and felonies for charges related to less than three pounds of marijuana.
It’s a step only a few other states have taken, but one that would help people with a wide range of convictions get jobs and benefits by making it as if the offenses had never happened.
The deadline for misdemeanors to be expunged is June 8 and felonies are required to be wiped clean by December 8. The responsibility to do the expungements falls to Circuit Clerks in each county across the state.
“We cannot meet that deadline, will not meet that deadline, it is not physically possible to meet that deadline,” said Greene County Circuit Clerk Bryan Feemster. “We wish that we could.”
Feemster says it’s largely because county employees have to go through every case file to see if there are charges to expunge.
Once they find charges that qualify, Feemster says they have to make sure they remove every trace of the charge. After streamlining the process, Feemster says it takes about two hours to process just one case.
More recent cases could be searched with computers because they are digitized but older cases exist only on paper, requiring even more time to go through.
“There is, at this point, not an end in sight but we’re going to keep working at it,” Feemster said.
Data from the state shows that more than 31,000 charges have been expunged as of early May. In many instances, one person has more than one charge. Feemster says his office has looked through about 43,000 cases just to expunge charges in less than two percent of them.
Attorney Justin Ortiz the county workers he’s spoken with handling cases for his clients, have been doing the best with what they have.
“I think the reality of it is there are probably some [cases] that get missed or don’t hit that deadline just because of how many there have been in the entire history of Missouri,” Ortiz said.
The process has worked for people like Jeff Mizanskey, who spent more than 20 years in prison because of severe penalties for people caught with marijuana multiple times.
“I think [expungement is] one of the best things in the whole bill, personally, because it gives these guys and girls a life that’s worth living,” said Mizanskey.
He says expungement allows people to get the jobs and benefits they need to provide for their families. He’s had two convictions expunged automatically and still needs to file a petition to get a third, more serious conviction, wiped away.
Feemster says counties will have to work with cases that go all the way to the early 1970s before they are finished.