After Times investigation, law passed to force California to clear weed convictions faster

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California has new deadlines for rejecting and sealing many cannabis convictions under a law signed this week by Governor Gavin Newsom.

The move comes after a Times investigation found that tens of thousands of Californians still have misdemeanors, misdemeanors and other cannabis convictions on their records. Despite a 2018 law requiring the state to release cannabis convictions, many counties have moved at icy speeds. Some higher courts have not fully heard any case, The Times found.

β€œIt is unimaginable and unacceptable that years after we legalize cannabis, Californians are still waiting to have their records cleared,” said bill author Mia Bonta (D-Alameda) in a statement. “We have a moral obligation to do this right.”

The new law gives the courts a March 1 TBEN to update the files and forward them to the Department of Justice, which maintains California’s criminal history database and responds to background checks. The state DOJ must change its records by July 1.

The amendment will address the “implementation gaps” of the 2018 law, Bonta said. The Times investigation found that at least 34,000 marijuana records have not been fully processed by the courts.

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State lawmakers voted unanimously in favor of the legislation, citing The Times’ investigation earlier this year in analysis.

The bill’s sponsor is the Last Prisoner Project, which advocates for national cannabis criminal justice reform. In a statement, the group’s policy director, Gracie Burger, said the law “represents responsibility for the racist origins of cannabis prohibition.”

“Californians who wouldn’t commit a crime today still suffer from the weight of past marijuana convictions,” Los Angeles County Deputy Public Advocate Nick Stewart-Oaten said in a statement.

“We applaud the legislature and the governor for taking immediate action to give these men and women their lives back,” said Stewart-Oaten, a board member of the California Public Defenders Assn.

Kate Weaver Patterson, deputy director of national programs at Root & Rebound in Oakland, also praised the passing of the legislation.

“Thousands of Californians have been charged with criminal records for longer than they should, which has a deep and lasting impact on their livelihoods, in areas such as housing, employment and family stability,” Weaver Patterson said in a statement.

Court officials blamed a combination of factors for delays, including COVID-19, staff shortages, outdated case management systems, old records requiring manual review and technical issues.

However, the delays are not due to a lack of funding, The Times reported. The courts received $16.83 million in state resources to process files.

When California voters legalized cannabis for recreational use in 2016, one pledge was the creation of a legal pathway through the courts to lift many old marijuana-related convictions or reduce them to lower charges.

It was a move championed by reform proponents designed to right many of the injustices caused by the country’s war on drugs that was waged disproportionately against poor people and communities of color.

The 2018 law, AB1793, was supposed to lift mass past cannabis convictions, eliminating the need to file individual court petitions β€” a tricky process few Californians have undertaken, whether it was an option due to a lack to resources or consciousness. The state was tasked with automating the process of identifying eligible cases, updating records, and rejecting and sealing many of them so they don’t show up on background checks.

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The law was the first in the nation to offer automatic record release for marijuana convictions.

The delays in clearing drug charges can have serious consequences for people seeking employment, professional licenses, housing, loans and other cases where background checks are required.

Under the new law, the state DOJ and the Judicial Council, which oversees the higher courts, will be tasked with collecting data on statewide cannabis release releases and regular public reports. The state DOJ will also run an awareness campaign so that people know that their records have been updated and that they no longer have to disclose convictions.

California has “fallen short” [the] promise” of Proposition 64, Bonta said. The new law “guarantees that individuals will not be denied opportunities to succeed in life because of small cannabis records.”

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