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LA County DA Moves To Dismiss 66,000 Marijuana-Related Convictions

Los Angeles County courts may soon throw out nearly 66,000 marijuana-related convictions of residents dating back more than 50 years.

Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey has asked a judge to dismiss and seal the records of 62,000 felony cannabis convictions for cases as early as 1961, as well as, 3,700 misdemeanor cannabis possession cases.

Lacey, who is caught in a tight race for the district attorney seat against two progressive candidates, called it a marker of the sweeping change that can occur when government partners with technology leaders.

"We believe it is the largest effort in California to wipe out old criminal convictions in a single court motion," she said in a news conference on Thursday.

The move comes about a year and a half after Lacey agreed to partner with Code for America in a pilot program that uses an algorithm to identify convictions that qualify for resentencing or dismissal under the state's Proposition 64.

The voter-approved measure legalized recreational marijuana and mandated resentencing for those with felony conviction for the cultivation of marijuana, possession for sale of marijuana and sales and/or transport of marijuana. It also included dismissing misdemeanor possession charges.

As a result, prosecutors throughout the state have been under pressure to meet a July 1, 2020, deadline to expunge or reduce all eligible convictions.

"I also took the will of the voters one step further," Lacey explained. "I expanded the criteria to go above and beyond the parameters of the law to ensure that many more people will benefit from this historic moment in time."

Those who were eligible under the pilot program, included persons 50 years of age or older, anyone who was convicted under the age of 21, anyone who has not been convicted of a crime in the past 10 years, anyone with a conviction who successfully completed probation and for cannabis convictions.

Sealing convictions, Lacey said, will bring relief for many facing obstacles in "building the life they deserve."

"We're making a motion to seal it because we realize that's the issue," Lacey said. "When you go to apply for a job, you go to apply for housing and your record comes up, even though we've expunged it, that may not give you help."

Approximately 53,000 people will have their convictions wiped out, according to Code for America. Of those, the district attorney's office reports approximately 32% are black or African American, 20% are white, 45% are Latinx, and 3% are other or unknown.

Other counties, including San Fernando, San Francisco, Sacramento, San Joaquin and Contra Costa, also participated in the Code for America pilot program, called Clear My Record.

In all, the nonprofit group says it has helped clear and seal more than 85,000 cannabis-related convictions in California.

Prior to the test program, only those who petitioned the court could have their records expunged or sealed. A process long criticized for being time-consuming, expensive and confusing. As a result, "only 3% of those eligible for relief under Proposition 64 have received" relief, according to Code for America.

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Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.