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Using Algorithms to Erase Pot Convictions in California

by Douglas Ankney

In 2016, California voters legalized marijuana. They also approved a proposition that allowed the state to expunge past pot convictions. But the law places many hurdles in the path of expungement.

“The way the legislation was written really kind of puts it all on the people that had been convicted,” says San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón.

His office became aware of the magnitude of the problem in 2017 when it discovered that just 23 of the more than 9,000 people eligible for expungement had applied. “It’s a really small number and often the people who seek relief are well off,” Gascón says. “There were people that were harmed by decades of bad policy, and I think the government has an obligation to make some reparation. The question became, ‘How do we do this, and how much work is it going to take?’”

Gascón turned to the nonprofit group Code for America. The group uses an algorithm designed in conjunction with each county district attorney. It takes an attorney 15 minutes to evaluate a record for eligibility and prepare the expungement paperwork; whereas, the group processed over 8,000 in a matter of minutes. With an estimated 20 million people across the country having pot convictions, Code for America hopes to apply its technology nationwide.



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