California bill provides process to erase, reduce sentences for marijuana possession

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California may begin the process of systematically erasing and reducing sentences for marijuana possession through a bill now on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk for signing.

Assemblymember Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, introduced AB 1793 in response to the 2016 passage of Proposition 64, which legalized recreational marijuana use for people 21 and older. The proposition also allowed for the “resentencing and destruction of records for prior marijuana convictions,” according to the ballot measure. Prop. 64, however, did not specify a process for the retroactive erasure of cannabis convictions, a gap that AB 1793 seeks to address.

If AB 1793 is signed by Brown, the state Department of Justice has until July 1, 2019, to search its database for eligible cases from 1975 to 2016 and send them to district attorneys for review. District attorneys then have exactly one year to challenge any case that they do not agree is eligible for resentencing.

“Long after paying their debt to society, people shouldn’t continue to face the collateral consequences, like being denied a job or housing, because they have an outdated conviction on their record,” Bonta said in a press release.

Many individuals whose convictions can be reduced or expunged are either unaware of their eligibility or are discouraged by the tedious process of petitioning the court, Bonta added in the the press release. AB 1793 places this responsibility on the state.

Some district attorneys, such as Alameda County’s Nancy O’Malley, had already begun the process of expunging or reducing cannabis-related convictions prior to the passage of AB 1793, according to Berkeley City Councilmember Kriss Worthington. He added, however, that creating a state bill “levels the playing field” for eligible people whose county district attorneys were “unwilling” to review their cases.

The Alameda County District Attorney’s Office has identified about 5,900 eligible cases, according to its website. The county currently uses a three-phase approach for dealing with cases: inform members of the public of their right to petition a case, create a report of identified eligible individuals, and finally, review and send cases to the court.

“(The bill) will save all the district attorneys, including ours, time from going and finding all these cases,” Worthington said. “It’s a very laborious, boring process to sort that out from all the records.”

After a case is expunged or reduced by a district attorney, the California Department of Justice must edit the individual’s record in the department’s criminal database to reflect the change, according to the bill. According to Worthington, this move is “long overdue” to address the consequences of marijuana prohibition enforcement on the lives of those affected.

Berkeley is looking into ways to help people who are “victims of the drug war” by giving preference to new businesses that are run by affected people, Worthington said. According to him, Berkeley has long supported decriminalization and, more recently, legalization — the city passed a resolution to become a sanctuary city for cannabis in February.

“I’m proud to see AB 1793 pass the Senate with bi-partisan support and I’m hopeful the Governor will sign this important bill,” Bonta said in the press release.

Contact Alyssa Bernardino at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @alybernardino.