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Sonoma County to dismiss more than 2,700 marijuana convictions

More than 2,000 people convicted for marijuana-related crimes in Sonoma County will have their records cleared through a relief program initiated after California voters four years ago legalized recreational cannabis use among adults, District Attorney Jill Ravitch announced Friday.

The 2,735 marijuana convictions were identified with the state’s “Clear My Record” software that allows prosecutors to sift through hundreds of thousands of cannabis-related convictions statewide to evaluate eligibility for dismissal.

“That’s a significant number of people in the community,” who will benefit, Ravitch said. “And anybody who carries a criminal conviction on their record knows well how that can impact access to housing and job opportunities. So it’s the right thing to do.”

Ravitch’s announcement came five days before the state’s July 1 deadline requiring counties to reduce and dismiss convictions based on now-defunct marijuana laws.

So far, district attorneys in California have asked the courts to dismiss or reduce tens of thousands of cannabis-related convictions, including 66,000 convictions in Los Angeles, 25,000 in San Diego and 9,000 in San Francisco counties.

Most of those dismissals were nearly four years in the making.

The landmark Proposition 64 passed by voters in 2016 made it legal for adults in the state to have, sell, travel with, grow and consume marijuana in certain quantities. Before the proposition passed, such acts led to the arrest and incarceration of thousands of people across California.

There was a provision giving people the right to petition courts to get their convictions reduced or dismissed.

But too few took advantage of the opportunity.

By 2018, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón said only 23 people had filed petitions to change their marijuana convictions, according to a local news report.

Advocates argued the process was too expensive and time consuming and continued exacerbating a troubling dynamic with drug laws ― an outsized impact on Black, Latino and low-income communities.

In February 2018, district attorneys in San Francisco and San Diego announced they would work to wipe out or reduce marijuana convictions dating back decades after realizing that few people were initiating the process.

That same month, Ravitch said she would not follow suit when asked by The Press Democrat if she would institute a similar program, saying there was no funding to support the added work for her prosecutors.

But by the next month she had changed her mind. Ravitch, who was seeking reelection, said she had heard convincing arguments that the process was too daunting and expensive for many with convictions. She assigned a deputy district attorney in the narcotics unit to initiate reductions and expungements.

Ravitch said that at some point, though she couldn’t recall precisely when, local Superior Court Judge Jennifer Dollard issued a procedural order that prosecutors cannot initiate the petitions on behalf of defendants. So prosecutors began preparing the documents for public defenders to submit.

By then, state lawmakers recognized the right to petition for dismissal of a marijuana conviction was too cumbersome for most people.

Legislators passed AB 1793, requiring the California Department of Justice to review state criminal history, identify those eligible for relief under Proposition 64 to the courts and the courts to automatically reduce or dismiss eligible convictions by July 1, 2020.

Last September, the nonprofit Code for America launched the “Clear My Record” program for use by all California’s 58 counties to help prosecutors find cases deserving dismissal or a sentencing reduction and meet the state’s goal.

Ravitch said the software was the linchpin her office needed.

Her office has since identified 2,110 individuals ― equivalent to 2,735 convictions ― eligible for relief under the proposition. Among them, 427 people had misdemeanor convictions eligible for complete dismissal, and 1,713 people had felony convictions that could be reduced to misdemeanor crimes.

Ravitch, however, chose to clear those convictions as well, a step beyond what the state requires, because, she said, “it is the right thing to do.”

“People’s views of marijuana have changed,” Ravitch said. “And while these crimes were viewed more seriously back when convictions were sustained, today it doesn’t seem that it is in the interest of justice for someone to carry a conviction on their record.”

Erich Pearson, the chief executive officer of SPARC dispensaries in San Francisco and Sonoma County, said “it’s about time” the county dismissed marijuana-related convictions.

“We’re four years into (Prop. 64) and we’re now finally saying that we should think about addressing the wrongs from the drug war,” Pearson said. “It’s necessary what (Ravitch has) done, but she should’ve done it a long time ago.”

Pearson was arrested in 1998 in Sonoma County on suspicion of marijuana cultivation, among other felonies. He reached a plea agreement that reduced the charges to misdemeanors, and later petitioned the court to have his record expunged. But Pearson has noted that he is a white man who could afford a lawyer to advocate for his case, unlike many others.

He urged officials to look at dismissing other drug possession charges as well.

“We need to take the next step and look at the way any law disproportionately affects communities of color and try to right those wrongs,” Pearson said.

Of the individuals whose convictions have been dismissed, 1,505 identified as white, 405 identified as Hispanic, 120 identified as Black, 25 identified as Asian, 16 identified as American Indian and eight identified as Pacific Islander, according to the office’s news release. Thirty-one individuals’ race was not given or was unknown.

Anyone who wishes to find out if their record has been cleared should contact the law offices of the Sonoma County Public Defender or the Sonoma County Superior Court.

You can reach Staff Writers Chantelle Lee at 707-521-5337 or chantelle.lee@pressdemocrat.com and Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com.

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