In one of his final acts before leaving office, Former Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 1793, which directed the California Department of Justice to review all cannabis-related convictions to see if they can be stricken from public record.
AB 1793 set a deadline of July 1 for the state Department of Justice to review records and identify convictions eligible for dismissal and sealing. Local prosecutors will then have another year to review those cases and determine whether to challenge those dismissals.
Well, it’s now May, and protesters claim that Santa Clara County DA Jeff Rosen has yet to make this a priority, as his counterpart has done in San Francisco County. Officials from Rosen’s office argue that they have indeed made pot record-clearance a priority—it’s just that they haven’t marketed it as much as some other counties.
Still, Aysha Pathan, a sociology student at San Jose State and member Students Against Mass Incarceration (SAMI), decried the Santa Clara County DA’s approach.
“Even after decriminalization [of marijuana], there’s still stigma around cannabis use,” Pathan said. “There have been people with worse crimes that have clean records. We’ve said it multiple times, but we want these cases cleared.”
Pathan spoke with other students at a press conference organized by SAMI Wednesday outside of Rosen’s office. She was joined by about a dozen activists hoping to pressure the DA into clearing the county’s cannabis conviction records.
Convictions make it more difficult for people to get hired for jobs, and apply for small business loans. That means individuals who were previously convicted of cannabis possession have a much harder path to open cannabis dispensaries, despite the fact that pot—and, in turn, commercial pot sales businesses—are legal in California.
Despite legalization, thousands of prior convictions continue to prevent people from joining the newly expanded legal market.
Tony Russell said he has been blocked from filing for a small business license to open a dispensary of his own because of a conviction for marijuana possession from the early 1990s. “I’ve gotten my case expunged in 1993,” he said.
But that’s not enough.
Expungement does not guarantee clearance—or sealing, in other words—of a case. That responsibility lies with the district attorney. Until cases are sealed, a record of the conviction, though inaccessible to the public, still exists in the legal system.
SAMI has previously sat down with representatives from Rosen’s office, but the activist group believes that the DA must make a “commitment to action.”
At the presser, SAMI issued two demands: That a plan from the district attorney be announced for cases eligible to be cleared before July 1, and to announce the exact number of cases eligible for clearance, including how many of existing records will be reduced, and when this work will be complete.
If the DA’s office chooses to challenge any cases eligible for clearance, SAMI demanded, prosecutors must also include their reasoning for objection and the number denied.
Some counties have already taken steps toward reform.
In February, San Francisco DA George Gascon, in partnership with Code for America, a tech nonprofit that works with city governments to implement technology in city proceedings, cleared more than 9,000 convictions. In March, Los Angeles County DA Jackie Lacey moved to clear the cannabis convictions of over 54,000 residents.
However, no steps yet have currently been announced by the Santa Clara County DA, a fact repeatedly highlighted by protesters on Tuesday.
“Is this a valley of innovation or procrastination?” Jethro Moore, a local pastor and president of the San Jose chapter of the NAACP, wondered aloud. “Jeff [Rosen], it’s time to do something good for a change.”
The appearance at the rally of a local figure from the NAACP highlighted another issue brought up in marijuana convictions: race.
Almost two-thirds of felony weed charges were levied against Latino and black people, despite their combined numbers comprising less than 45 percent of California’s overall population. By contrast, white people accounted for about a third of felony pot convictions, despite totaling only 35 percent of the statewide population.
“There’s definitely a race issue here,” Pathan said. “The stigma of people using [cannabis] just isn’t true. People of all backgrounds use [cannabis].”
DA officials, however, disputed the notion that Rosen’s office has been slow to act.
Already, hundreds of convictions have been cleared, DA spokesman Sean Webby said in an email. Meanwhile, he added, a process has been created to clear everybody as soon as the DOJ releases a comprehensive list of eligible cases.
But unlike San Francisco, this county has not held a press event about its clearance efforts, which Webby said has led to some public misperceptions. As a result, Rosen’s office created an FAQ page to educate people about the process, Webby added.
Santa Clara County Deputy DA David Angel said that while he understands the concerns raised by protesters, this county doesn’t have a massive backlog like L.A., and that Rosen’s office is efficient enough to clear cases in a timely manner.
Rosen prioritized cases for people already jailed when Prop. 64 passed,, Angel explained, and set up a process for people with pot convictions to go to the DA’s office to have their record wiped. But there’s no backlog for those high-priority cases, he added, though some are pending. Meanwhile, he’s waiting on the California DOJ for a comprehensive list of who is actually convicted. While it’s true that the DA can look back at the county’s records, Angel said the goal is to make sure it’s “done right.”
This article has been updated to include comments from prosecutor David Angel.