The second-ever National Expungement Week (NEW) will be held September 21-28. It involves a nationwide series of events to provide expungement, record-sealing and other services to people impacted by the criminalization of cannabis. With legalization continuing to spread across the country, NEW hopes to focus the national discussion on relief and restorative justice support for millions of Americans with criminal records.
The full list of events—spanning at least 29 cities from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Worcester, Massachusetts—can be found here. Exact programming varies, but participants will typically have free access to experts ready to guide them through often-difficult expungement processes, and be connected to further assistance.
National Expungement Week, which debuted in October 2018, as Filter reported, is organized by Equity First Alliance (EFA)—a national coalition of social justice organizations focused on equity issues in cannabis policy. NEW events are produced in each city by both EFA member organizations and local activist groups.
“Last year we held events in 14 cities and 10 states,” Lauren Kruz, director of Tree Femme Collective, told Filter. “This year, we’ve expanded to over 40 events nationwide. We have more services offered this year, including voter registration in partnership with Rock the Vote, technology assistance from Code for America, community mental health resources, health screenings, and access to information on financial aid and public housing.”
“Many people still don’t understand how deeply criminal convictions affect people’s long-term abilities to lead normal lives.”
Cannabis legalization continues to spread rapidly. Thirty-three states have legalized at least for medical purposes, with 11 of them, plus Washington, DC, having legalized for adult recreational use. Established in Colorado, right down the West Coast and in much of New England, adult-use legalization has also touched the Midwest—with Michigan in 2018 and Illinois this year finally joining the ranks. New York and New Jersey came close to legalizing this year, only for legislative efforts to collapse.
But Equity First Alliance advocates argue forcefully that legalization alone isn’t enough—that measures like expungement of past convictions have to be at the forefront. They want legalization to benefit not just cannabis businesses and investors, but to serve as a mechanism of restorative justice for Black, Latinx, low-income and other communities most harmed by the War on Drugs.
Yet not all expungement is created equal. Processes can be complex and costly, putting them out of reach to many. Most advocates want automatic expungement, which requires that state or county governments review their own criminal records, determine who is eligible, and grant expungements through the courts. Filter reported recently on Cook County, Illinois, which is partnering with Code for America to pursue this process with software assistance.
“Many people still don’t understand how deeply criminal convictions affect people’s long-term abilities to lead normal lives,” Sheena M. Roberson, CEO of Cannabis Noire and organizer of the Philadelphia NEW event, told Filter. “We often lack real mental health resources and support in our communities, and convictions create many barriers to our self-improvement.” These include obstacles to employment, education and housing. Roberson knows first-hand the pain that drug convictions inflict; her own family members have been arrested and imprisoned.
“The people most impacted by the War on Drugs are not the people that dispensaries are marketing their product to.”
Roberson said that full support for expungement and criminal justice reform is the only way to ensure the success of legalization in her state of Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
“Legislators miss the mark when it comes to convincing our communities why we should support legalization,” she said. “The people who are most adversely impacted by the War on Drugs are not the people that dispensaries are marketing their product to. So politicians lose a whole slew of potential voters by not centering expungement and criminal justice in the conversation.”
Across the Delaware River, Imani R. Oakley, deputy director of the Restoration of Rights Project, is helping to organize an expungement event in New Jersey’s largest city, Newark. “We will be providing expungement help for people at all stages of the process,” she told Filter. “We’re working to bring in attorneys so participants can meet with them and understand the next steps they need to take. We’re also offering voter registration, and anti-community violence resources.”
Tackling Barriers to Expungement
New Jersey’s failed legalization effort this year promised to implement an expedited record expungement process and employment protections for people with cannabis convictions. Governor Phil Murphy supports an automatic expungement procedure.
Oakley agrees, and pointed out how complicated expungement can be, even where it’s technically possible. “People seeking expungement have to visit many different offices in different cities to fill out various paperwork, and it’s difficult to know how to navigate that,” she explained. “So it’s very helpful to offer all these services in one place.”
No one should have to go through the expungement process alone. For Daniel Montero, founder of Green Walrus Delivery in San José, California, expunging his two cannabis felony convictions was only easy because he had expert help.
“I worked with our state university, which focuses on expungement,” he told Filter. “First we went to the sheriff’s office to get my criminal record, which cost $40. I took it back to the university, and they reviewed it with me.”
“They showed me which of my offenses could be expunged. They helped me prepare the paperwork and explained to the judge my situation. We went to court, and eventually the district attorney and judge approved it. The whole process took several months, but the university really made it so much easier for me.”
“It’s only $16. But $16 can be a lot for some people.”
People seeking an expungement may be forced to pay many different fees throughout the process. They may have to take time off of work or other responsibilities to attend to it. If they enlist a private lawyer to help, the costs can rack up to thousands of dollars.
But just as every small cost can hurt people already victimized by drug laws, many small acts can help. Alexandria Boutros of Cannabis Equity Illinois Coordinators says that she and other organizers of the Chicago NEW event are discussing the creation of a community fund to help pay the $16 fee for people to get their “rap sheet.” “It’s only $16,” Boutros told Filter. “But $16 can be a lot for some people.”
Sometimes the barriers to expungement are not institutional or financial, but simply a lack of information. “It’s one thing to pass expungement on paper, but if people don’t know about it it isn’t serving them,” said Boutros. “There’s so much misunderstanding about what can and can’t be expunged, and who is eligible for automatic expungement. So many people have no clue there’s a Help Desk here in the city to assist them with expungement.”
A young volunteer helps spread the word about expungement education sessions in Illinois. Photo courtesy of Cannabis Equity Illinois.
Boutros recounted the stories of some older people who recently visited Chicago’s expungement Help Desk and learned—to their surprise—that they could expunge a cannabis conviction from the 1960s.
“Expungement work has to be done in the community,” she said. “You hold these events, you spread the word, you tell your neighbors and they tell their neighbors. There just isn’t enough resources and investment from governments to do this work themselves.” The Help Desk, she said, does great work—but it’s only open two days a week and has very long lines.
As more states pass or consider cannabis legalization, criminal justice issues like expungement are rightly gaining prominence. And in those states that have already legalized, advocates are pushing for the boldest expungement provisions.
“This is something awesome and easy that won’t cost the district attorney anything.”
They include Daniel Montero, who, having personally benefited from expungement years ago, is now fighting for his community in San José to enjoy the same. He and his San José Cannabis Equity Working Group are circulating a petition to force their district attorney to embrace automatic expungement and partner with Code for America.
“This would mean the world to our citizens here,” Montero said. “People in this city work two or three jobs just to survive, and they can’t take time off to go through this process even if they have the help I did.”
“Americans love convenience,” he added. “We’ll sit in a drive-through for some unhealthy food—but this is for something awesome and easy that won’t cost the district attorney anything.”
Top photo of participants in a lobby day preceding legalization in Illinois, courtesy of Cannabis Equity Illinois