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Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey, a Democrat who is up for re-election on March 3, recently expunged nearly 66,000 marijuana convictions, in part, to correct historical inequities she says have negatively affected black and brown families.
Lacey, a two-term incumbent, announced the move last Thursday along with officials from a non-profit tech company called Code for America. The D.A.’s office partnered with the group last year to create a computer algorithm that would identify convictions eligible for dismissal under Proposition 64 – the 2016 referendum that legalized the recreational use of pot in California.
When Prop. 64 passed, voters asked CA prosecutors to review/reduce felony convictions for the cultivation, sales, transport & possession for sale of cannabis to misdemeanors. #LADAOffice went beyond that call & asked the court to dismiss all eligible cannabis-related convictions. pic.twitter.com/jm3YSPcTOn
— Jackie Lacey (@LADAOffice) February 13, 2020
Code for America’s “Clear My Record” tool is designed to analyze the text in court documents, helping to alleviate the lengthy bureaucratic process of manually reviewing criminal records to determine which convictions are eligible to be cleared. The technology saves time, resources, and money, with the ability to scan the files of thousands of people in a matter of seconds, a company official said. It allows a D.A.’s office to dismiss or resentence convictions proactively and automatically.
“The dismissal of tens of thousands of old cannabis-related convictions in Los Angeles County will bring much-needed relief to communities of color that disproportionately suffered the unjust consequences of our nation’s drug laws,” D.A. Lacey said. “I am privileged to be part of a system dedicated to finding innovative solutions and implementing meaningful criminal justice reform that gives all people the support they need to build the life they deserve.”
Last Tuesday, an L.A. Superior Court judge granted Lacey’s request to clear 62,000 cannabis felony convictions dating back to 1961. Prosecutors also sought the dismissal of approximately 4,000 misdemeanor possession cases in several L.A. County cities, including L.A., Pasadena, Inglewood, and Santa Monica.
According to the L.A. Times, “that means 22,000 people no longer have felonies on their record in California, and 15,000 no longer have a criminal record at all.” A total of 53,000 people were deemed eligible to have their pre-legalization pot convictions erased, of which 77% are Latino or black.
Lacey’s detractors, such as the L.A. chapter of Black Lives Matter, questioned the timing of the dismissals, speculating she took action now “because she’s about to be voted out of office.”
Former San Francisco D.A. George Gascón, another Democrat who has emerged as Lacey’s most formidable challenger in next month’s election, noted her decision comes “prior to state law forcing her hand,” referencing a July 1 deadline for California prosecutors to dismiss eligible marijuana-related convictions.
Gascón, who established a reputation as one of the nation’s most progressive prosecutors while serving in S.F., was the first D.A. in the state to partner with Code for America, enlisting the group’s services in 2018. He helped create a program that his campaign spokesman says has been duplicated in L.A. County.
“For years, and in spite of legalization, individuals were denied employment and housing opportunities because of old marijuana convictions,” Gascón said in a statement. “Lack of access to a job and housing are primary factors that drive recidivism, and that’s why I took this action two years ago; it enhanced community safety and equity. That’s also why it sparked a national movement.”
The S.F. District Attorney’s Office became the first to complete the automated marijuana record clearance process, announcing last February it had automatically cleared 8,132 felony and misdemeanor convictions. At the time, then-D.A. Gascón called on other prosecutors to “address the inherent unfairness of penalizing people for activity that is no longer illegal.”
Lacey announced a partnership with Code for America five weeks later, in April.
Former public defender Rachel Rossi is also in the D.A. race, which L.A. County residents could decide on Super Tuesday when California holds its presidential primary. If none of the candidates receive more than 50% of the vote, the top two finishers will compete in a November runoff.
D.A. Lacey has been endorsed by police unions, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, and U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff.
The L.A. County Democratic Party, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, and U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters are backing Mr. Gascón.
L.A. County is home to the nation’s largest local prosecutors office, along with the world’s biggest jail system.
Follow Jeffrey Cawood on Twitter@JeffreyCawood.