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New Tech Helps Dismiss Over 8,000 Cannabis Convictions

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If you were convicted of a marijuana-related offense dating clear back to 1975 in San Francisco, chances are, that conviction was dismissed last week with the help of a new computer algorithm.

Last Monday, San Francisco’s District Attorney’s office announced that over 8,000 convictions identified by a computer algorithm that automatically scanned court records would be dismissed.

San Francisco D.A. George Gascon said in a statement that San Francisco is the first county nationwide to complete an automated search to clear marijuana records.

A nonprofit tech company that works on government improvement projects, Code For America, developed the algorithm for the D.A.’s office with the goal of searching for and picking out cases that could be dismissed under the law since California legalized marijuana in 2016.

Until now, the law allowed for the overturning of convictions prior to the legalization bill, Proposition 64’s passage because those individuals would not now be treated the same way under the law as they were when they were convicted. However, it was up to each individual to petition for the dismissal on his or her own. That process was time-consuming and costly to both the petitioners and taxpayers. So much so, that only 23 people applied for the process in San Francisco last year.

Gascon, who promised last year that he and his staff would be proactive about finding cases which should be dismissed or modified under the new law, also announced in that statement his office’s partnership with Code For America to begin the process. The process of manually searching for and identifying such cases would have cost countless man-hours, but Code For America’s algorithm was able to complete the process in minutes.

The goal of this progress, Gacon implied, was to bring “greater racial equity and fairness to marijuana legalization in California,” according to a press release last Monday. Those individuals impacted by the cleaned-up records will now be better able to secure employment, housing, and other essential services that would be more difficult with a criminal record.

Gascon pointed out one such situation, saying, “If you are a mom or dad who wants to participate in the kids’ school activities and they’re being told you can’t go to that field trip because you have a felony conviction because you sold a nickel bag in the Tenderloin 10 years ago, that’s the people that we care about.” The press release also points out the racial disparity in what Gascon called “the failed war on drugs…,” saying, “In San Francisco, approximately 33% of all dismissed convictions involved African American People, and 27% involved Latinx people.” Those cases will now be dismissed and sealed.

The decision to retroactively apply Prop. 64 to cases – felony and misdemeanor – back to 1975 was made last year. Any cases prior to 1975 must still be filed for and examined manually. Meanwhile, both Code For America and Gascon are hoping that other counties, cities, and municipalities will consider using their program as well.

According to Jennifer Pahlka, Code For America’s founder and executive director, “Contact with the criminal justice system should not be a life sentence, so we’ve been working to re-imagine the record clearance process.” She continued, “This new approach, which is both innovative and common sense, changes the scale and speed of justice and has the potential to ignite change across the country.”

Not everyone who will have their cases dismissed will be notified, Gascon added. He did say, however, that those who believe they may be affected by the dismissals can call his office and verify whether or not they’ve been cleared. Individuals who may be affected by this new program can contact the San Francisco DA’s office by phone at 415-553-1751, or by e-mail at [email protected]

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