Code for America Continues Efforts to Expunge California Cannabis Convictions

Photo Credit: ROBIN VAN LONKHUIJSEN/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
April 30, 2019
22d ago

By Brian Henry

The Sacramento County District Attorney dismissed or reduce over 5,300 cannabis convictions this month thanks to an algorithm created by Code for America, a tech-driven government watchdog group. Sacramento is one of five California counties to partner with the nonprofit for the Clear My Record pilot program.

Recreational marijuana is legal in the state, which is why Jennifer Pahlka, the Founder and Executive Director of Code for America, told Cheddar that it was necessary to simplify the expungement process.

“We started by helping people just do the petition process better, using online technology, text messaging with them, helping them get through the process," she said. "Then we realized, why make them go through the process at all? It’s a really difficult process to go through and why don’t we try to do it automatically?"

Pahlka credits San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón for saying he wanted to clear criminal records automatically under Prop 64. In March, the city expunged over 9,000 cases, some dating back to 1975.

“We thought, instead of just giving it to people and letting them use it, we could actually give them to the District Attorneys so that we can look at the bulk data. Think about pulling down the records from the State Department of Justice database for that county, in this case, San Francisco," said Pahlka. "We have an algorithm that reads all of those records at once. It only takes a few minutes to read thousands of thousands of records to determine which one of them are eligible for expungement and then process what’s needed to make those actually sealed.”

Pahlka told Cheddar that “our goal is to do this across the country.”

“Where other people have criminal records that shouldn’t be suffering under the burden of, we’d like to help the government there change them automatically.”

Even though states like New Jersey and New York recently failed to pass a legalization bill due to disagreements about expungement, Pahlka is hopeful attitudes will change.

“Increasingly as you see places like California and others actually implement the law, my hope is they’ll see all of the benefits to not just passing it but getting the actual benefits intended by the law. Because you’ll see more people who can get jobs, more people who aren’t held back by the burden of a criminal record. I think that will help other states make the case for this.”

For full interview click here.