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Anyone even remotely familiar with the criminal justice system in the United States likely understands the need for extreme and drastic reforms. The current system assigns increasing penalties even for non-violent offenses. Those accused of drug crimes will likely face issues with civil asset forfeiture, along with criminal charges as the result of the failed War on Drugs.
More upsetting still is the fact that law enforcement and prosecutors often work in tandem to find grounds for more serious and drastic offenses in order to force individuals to take a plea bargain out of concern for the consequences if they do not. Even individuals who know they are innocent may feel like they have no choice but to enter a plea bargain, as the initial charge they face may carry very severe consequences.
The Equity First Alliance recognized the need for serious reform and took action by organizing the first-ever National Expungement Week at the end of October 2018. They hosted events in major cities across the country where individuals could receive legal advice about expungement and also help with other issues, such as government assistance programs.
Overall, this nationwide effort had a great impact on local communities. Organizers report that 298 individuals initiated the process to expunge or seal their criminal records, many of which were related to nonviolent cannabis offenses. Roughly another 400 individuals received other services at the various events that took place across the country. The Equity First Alliance estimates that the efforts it undertook during National Expungement Week likely generated a public benefit of $3,000,000 due to the sealing and expungement of public records.
Individuals caught with cannabis in their possession often face ridiculous penalties for a crime that few people still think should be prosecuted. Even after those people complete their jail sentences or probation and pay off their fines, they must deal with the burden of a criminal record for the rest of their lives. In other words, non-violent offenders who face drug charges often have to deal with very steep consequences that don’t reflect the seriousness of the offense.
The number of people with unnecessary criminal records, as well as the social burden that those records generate by keeping people out of gainful employment, is an issue that our society needs to address and soon. While plans are already underway for another National Expungement Week in 2019, the Equity First Alliance is also pushing for legal reform regarding cannabis laws.
They recently published an open letter looking at the impact of cannabis legalization on the rates of arrests for cannabis offenses. Their conclusion is clear: more reform is needed, especially as big business moves into cannabis. People of color are still disproportionately carrying the weight of prohibition, and their convictions often also preclude them from benefiting from the jobs created by legal cannabis markets.
Hopefully, those in power will pay attention to the financial impact of expungement and cannabis law reform, if they simply refuse to see the moral and social values of such legal reformation. A widespread effort is still necessary to help change laws in prohibitionist states, reduce pedantic (and racially/economically biased) enforcement of cannabis laws in states with legalization laws, and help those with existing convictions clear their records so that they can fully rejoin society.
For previous Ladybud coverage of expungement issues, click here.