Drew Nate | IE Voice
In 2016 California voters legalized the recreational use of cannabis and with this passing of legislation came the promise to create legal ways to lower marijuana-related convictions or reduce such convictions to a lesser charge.
Although a 2018 law was passed by legislators to help speed up the process and to help clear many Californians who are stuck with felonies, misdemeanors and other convictions on their records, the process has moved at a slow pace.
The Los Angeles Times has reported that “at least 34,000 marijuana records still have not been fully processed by the courts, according to an analysis of data provided by court officials throughout the state.”
The counties’ courts are held responsible for the slow processing of these records and while some counties have moved quicker to clear records, Riverside and San Bernardino Counties have moved rather slow.
While San Bernardino reportedly has about 5,400 cannabis cases remaining, Riverside County has an alleged backlog of approximately 21,000 cases.
Justice Department Deadline
The Justice Department sent 191,055 potentially eligible marijuana cases to district attorneys for review with a deadline of July 1, 2020, to send cases to the courts for processing. While most counties followed through, California’s 2018, AB-1793 Cannabis Convictions: Resentencing law did not give California’s 58 superior courts a deadline to complete their end of the work which includes updating case records and transmitting them back to the Justice Department, which maintains the statewide criminal history database, and also responds to state background checks.
This slow process of clearing records by Riverside and San Bernardino Counties specifically impacts members of the Black and Latino communities.
While national studies show marijuana usage is roughly the same among white, Black and Latino people, in 2015 in California, the marijuana arrest rates for Latinos were 1.4 times higher than white people, and Black Californians were arrested at a rate 3.5 times the rate of white people, according to a 2016 report by the Drug Policy Alliance.
The Inland Empire, in comparison to other counties, is amongst the lowest in regards to clearance rates in the state and the reason for these delays are not for lack of funding.
The courts received $16.83 million from the state budget to pay for the costs of processing records, such as staffing and development of information technology but no one is currently tracking where the funds are going.
Lives impacted by delays
Some have pointed to the continued delay in clearing records of marijuana-related convictions highlights a pattern of racial discrepancies when it comes to drug policies for people of color, especially for Black Californians, who for decades have had the highest arrest rates in the state.
The delays in clearing drug charges has affected those who are seeking employment, professional licensing, housing, loans, and in other instances in which background checks are required.
In December, the state Department of Justice sent out a bulletin urging prosecutors and courts to speed up the process.
California became the first state in the nation to offer automatic record clearance for marijuana convictions through its Assembly Bill 1793. The bill was supposed to clear thousands with past cannabis convictions, doing away with the need to file individual court petitions but because the process has varied by county, thousands are still waiting for their records to be cleared.