Bernie Sanders’ Plan to Expunge Millions of Cannabis Convictions Faster

October 30, 2019

Has Bernie Sanders been reading Filter? Last week we asked how far all the 2020 candidates—and Sanders in partfcular—will go on cannabis reform and equity. He immediately answered.

At 4:20 pm EST on October 24, Senator Sanders released a plan that proposes de-scheduling and legalizing marijuana federally within 100 days by executive action, and supporting legislation to do so through Congress.

It includes a national expungement and re-sentencing process for federal and state cannabis convictions, and increasing opportunities for executive clemency and just re-entry. It would invest a total of $50 billion from marijuana sales tax revenues into “communities hit hardest by the War on Drugs, especially African-American and other communities of color.” Finally, it outlines a series of regulatory measures to create a safe and fair cannabis industry.


How Would a Sanders Administration Handle Mass Expungement?

The Sanders plan looks to California as its model for criminal record expungement and relief. California lawmakers passed Assembly Bill 1793 in September 2018, creating a statewide process for automatic expungement of cannabis convictions.

Under that law, state prosecutors are required to review 40 years’ worth of cannabis convictions and determine who is eligible for expungement or other reliefs. After the state submits eligible expungement applications on behalf of the people who were convicted, county district attorneys have one year to approve or object to the cases.

Sanders’ plan describes a similar process whereby federal and state authorities will review all past and current cannabis convictions, including for people still incarcerated. After determining eligibility and submitting applications, prosecutors will have one year to weigh in. Then states “will automatically expunge and vacate past marijuana convictions for all those eligible.”

Significantly, Sanders also proposes giving funding to state governments that partner with organizations like Code for America—in order to speed up the expungement process by using software to automatically review criminal records and submit applications.

Filter previously reported on the efforts of prosecutors and activists in Cook County, Illinois and Santa Clara County, California to join forces with Code for America. Such partnerships have shown they can do expungement work quickly and effectively. The process is otherwise expensive and complex, creating barriers both for governments and for people with convictions.

Sheena Roberson, CEO of Cannabis Noire, witnessed how automated expungement can work at a clinic she hosted in Philadelphia this fall. “The process was simple, the team was efficient, and the goals were met,” she applauded. “With this technology users can fill out one ten minute application and get connected with public defenders or legal aid attorneys who can manage their case in every county.”

She continued, “This means if replicated on the national level, people with language barriers, physical obstacles, or scheduling conflicts will have immediate access to help. This would allow a safe and effective means of purging frivolous cannabis convictions and creating spaces of opportunity for people.”

In Cook County, the local prosecutor estimates that they will be able to expunge tens of thousands of cannabis convictions over several years. In California, San Francisco County prosecutors plan to expunge over 9,300. And prosecutors in Los Angeles and San Joaquin counties announced plans to expunge over 54,000 convictions.

Code for America provides these services at little cost, and can save counties millions of dollars and other resources, according to San Joaquin District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar. Counties are freed up to focus on communicating with the people whose convictions they are processing.

Substantial federal funding for this work under Sanders’ proposal could exponentially increase access to justice. 

Under the plan, anyone with a cannabis conviction who is neglected by the automatic expungement process, will be able to contact the relevant authorities to verify their status or eligibility. If the authorities take no action within two years, Sanders promises an “administrative remedy.” However, his plan does not explain this further.

One of the biggest barriers to people getting their cannabis convictions expunged is often a lack of information. Activists in Chicago, working on their own expungement efforts, previously told Filter that many residents, especially older folks, were unaware their decades-old convictions were eligible.

If Bernie is serious about this, then, his plan should not just fund states and counties to speed up expungement, but also fund community education and public awareness of the process. That may look like information and resources distributed by city and county governments, or it may mean strengthening public defenders’ offices so they can hire more staff.

Many activist and community organizations in different cities are offering outreach and counseling for local residents, filling in the gaps where government agencies fail. They would certainly benefit from more money to be able to expand this important work.


What About Community Re-Investment?

Sanders’ legalization plan is also noteworthy for its $50 billion investment in communities disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs. It doesn’t set a time-frame for spending this money, but promises grants to entrepreneurs of color ($20 billion total) and businesses majority-owned by people disproportionately impacted or criminalized for cannabis ($10 billion).

It also provides for professional resources and training to formerly incarcerated people, and promises to fund efforts to help them develop worker-owned businesses and cooperatives. It offers funding for disproportionately impacted folks to start urban and rural cannabis farms or grow operations ($10 billion).

Finally, Sanders offers a “targeted economic and community development fund” for disproportionately impacted communities ($10 billion). Within this, he specifically mentions plans to “fund and pursue innovative overdose prevention initiatives” and other problematic substance use prevention measures, but gives no other examples. So it is currently unclear if this money would also help fund improvements in housing, education, healthcare or other areas.

In this provision, Sanders’ plan seems to echo localities like Portland, Oregon, where voters demanded that a portion of cannabis sales tax revenues be set aside for social justice initiatives in their city. Filter has reported on how black-owned businesses like PDX Green Box—operated by a man with a prior cannabis arrest—have benefited from an innovative business grant program funded by cannabis taxes in Portland.

This cannabis tax also funds drug treatment and rehabilitation, and non-cannabis community and business reinvestment projects. But even then, implementation is key: A city audit showed that 75 percent of the revenue set aside by the city ended up going to the police department for traffic safety.

“The success of this policy depends on connecting to community liaisons and leadership that actually represents and genuinely understands these communities,” Roberson said. “In order to truly make tangible impacts in the lives of these people, we need to hear from the people, so we do know what specific obstacles they have and build wrap-around services and support based on their needs.

“Repaving basketball courts may not be as significant a gesture if there’s an immense need for school supplies or washing machines and dryers for a local public school. You only know this if you’re in the trenches with communities doing the work.”

So Bernie Sanders has to clearly define what “community reinvestment” looks like. The true destination of cannabis tax revenues—more police or more schools—will have significant consequences for a post-legalization America.

Image of Bernie Sanders at campaign rally in Queens, NY October 2019 used with permission; © 2019 Edward Torres Photography.

Alexander Lekhtman

Alexander is Filter's staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it's actually alright. He's also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter's editorial fellow.

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