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DA to streamline review of felony marijuana convictions for dismissal

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District Attorney George Gascon on Tuesday said he will use a computer program to speed up the review of hundreds of felony marijuana convictions for possible dismissal. (Examiner file photo)

After clearing hundreds of misdemeanor marijuana convictions, District Attorney George Gascon has a new tool that will automate the labor-intensive process for reviewing thousands of felony convictions for possible dismissal.

In an announcement Tuesday morning, Gascon said the computer program will automatically determine whether nearly 5,000 felony marijuana convictions in San Francisco are eligible for dismissal or reduced sentencing and, if so, generate paperwork for the District Attorney’s Office to file with the court.

“California has decriminalized recreational cannabis use, but a marijuana conviction continues to serve as a barrier to employment, housing, student loans and more,” Gascon said. “Until we clear these records it’s government that is effectively holding these people back and impeding public safety.”

Gascon’s office has cleared 428 misdemeanor marijuana convictions since January, when the district attorney began retroactively applying California’s new cannabis legalization laws under Proposition 64 to old cannabis cases.

In November 2016, Prop. 64 legalized recreational cannabis for adults over the age of 21 and also allowed people convicted of marijuana-related misdemeanors and felonies to petition their cases for dismissal or reduction to a lesser offense.

But rather than have individuals petition the court on their own, Gascon directed his office in January to review all 3,038 misdemeanor and 4,390 felony convictions in San Francisco dating back to 1975.

Cities and counties including Sonoma, Seattle and Philadelphia have followed suit in the months since.

As of Monday, the San Francisco Superior Court has granted 428 of the 528 motions to dismiss misdemeanor marijuana convictions that the District Attorney’s Office has filed since January. Gascon’s office has also prepared paperwork to submit another 434 motions to dismiss.

But the process for reviewing felony cases is more labor intensive, since prosecutors have to analyze criminal histories to determine whether a case can be dismissed or reduced under state law. The new program will do that for them while also ensuring that individuals do not have to take action to clear their records.

Gascon’s office will use the program through a partnership with Code For America, a nonprofit group that advocates for local governments to make better use of 21st Century technology.

“We believe government can work dramatically better than it does today, and the criminal justice system is one of the areas where we are most failing the American people,” Jennifer Pahlka, the group’s executive director, said in a statement.

The effort is also meant to remedy the disproportionate impacts of the war on drugs on people of color in San Francisco, where researchers have found that black people remain more than twice as likely to be arrested on suspicion of a drug offense than elsewhere in California.

A recent study from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice shows that black people were not only 2.4 times more likely to be arrested on a drug offense in San Francisco than in California in 2016, but 10 times more likely to be the subject of a drug arrest in The City than residents of other races.

The disparities persisted even as the number of drug arrests in San Francisco plummeted by 92 percent over the last three decades, from 29,200 in 1988-89 to just 2,414 in 2015-16.

Code for America plans to partner with three to five other California counties in addition to San Francisco, according to the District Attorney’s Office. The group aims to clear 250,000 convictions by 2019.

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

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