New tech allows California county prosecutors to erase 220,000 cannabis convictions with ease

In this Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017 photo, a marijuana bud is seen in Portland, Maine. Gift-giving has long been a part of marijuana culture, and the drug’s newly legal status is a source of Yuletide celebration in four states..Voters in California, Nevada, Maine and Massachusetts voted to legalize recreational marijuana last year, and some residents of those states will legally stuff stockings with spliffs for the first time this Christmas. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

You might remember that California voters voted to legalize cannabis for recreational use back in 2016. Great! What hasn’t been great, however, is that an estimated 220,000 people still have old cannabis convictions on the books, not to mention the number of people who have already served time. But there is exciting news coming out of the local tech world: It just got a whole lot easier for California county prosecutors to reduce or literally erase these convictions. And it’s really, really simple to do.

Here’s how this breaks down. A San Francisco-based nonprofit called Code for America announced it’s making its computer algorithms free for all 58 district attorneys in the state. What’s so useful here? The algorithms find all eligible cases in court documents and automatically fills out forms to file with the correct courts. And the database goes back decades. 

This is important because while voters did approve eliminating past criminal convictions and changing felonies to misdemeanors, in practice, there hasn’t been an easy and direct way for district attorneys to actually do so. What have people been doing? In most cases, county employees had to sift through individual records. Obviously, this takes a lot of time—and takes time away from oher tasks getting done. It’s a bad cycle.

This computer program is, basically, an app for finding out who qualifies and taking action. And this program analyzes conviction eligibility for a smooth 10,000 people per minute. Yeah: It’s that big of a difference.

And remember, people are regularly denied housing, jobs, travel, and other opportunities because of their criminal records. Clearing these convictions in an efficient manner isn’t just a technicality; it has the potential to drastically change people’s lives. This is true for anyone, but especially for people of color—and specifically black Americans.

While white and black people use cannabis at roughly the same rate, black Americans are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for possession than white Americans. In some parts of the country, like Alabama, black Americans are four times as likely to be arrested on felony possession charges. All of this while white people are going viral and building cannabis empires—have no doubt that this is structural racism at play. If it’s time for white people to profit off of cannabis (and similarly, the popular wellness cousin, CBD), it’s well past time for people of color to be rid of their convictions and get their lives back.

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