With Marijuana Legal In Calif., San Francisco Is Dismissing 1,000s Of Convictions
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Eight states have now made it legal to use recreational marijuana. California did it with a ballot initiative, Proposition 64. Now the city of San Francisco is taking a further step. District Attorney George Gascon announced that his office will expunge or reduce convictions for possession and recreational use going back to 1975. Under Prop 64, residents could petition their convictions, but only 23 people did so in the city last year. Gascon tells me that's because it was complicated.
GEORGE GASCON: The problem is that if you go through that process, you have to hire an attorney. You have to petition the court. You have to come for a hearing. It's a very expensive and very cumbersome process. And the reality is that the majority of the people that were punished and were the ones that suffered in this war on marijuana, war on drugs nationally were people that can ill afford to pay an attorney. They're poor people. They're people that do not have the ability to go to court without missing work.
So what we're doing is we're wiping out all the misdemeanor convictions. And on the felony convictions, we have to review them before we can downgrade them because we have to determine whether they qualify or not. And we're going to do the work ourself. The public will not have to do anything.
SHAPIRO: In real-world terms, if somebody was convicted of marijuana possession or use 20 years ago, what kind of an impact would that have had on a person's life?
GASCON: If you have a felony conviction on your record, let's begin by saying you cannot vote. There are many places where you will not be able to rent or buy a home. There are employers that will not hire you. You cannot get certain types of student loans, cannot get certain public assistance. So there's a whole bunch of things that preclude you from participating to the fullest in the social society by having that conviction. And what we're saying is, the public in California has determined that this should not be a crime. Then let's go back and repair some of the harm.
SHAPIRO: Were people petitioning you for this?
GASCON: No, no, we did this on our own. I think most people, quite frankly, weren't even sure that we could do this, you know? There's over a million people in California that qualify for relief under Prop 64. Only 4,800 have applied, which goes to my earlier point. People that most need the relief either can't afford it or would not know how to go about doing this.
SHAPIRO: San Francisco is one small part of the Bay Area and of California. If somebody just across the bay from San Francisco who lives in Oakland was convicted of marijuana possession, are they still going to have their record on the books?
GASCON: Yeah, so here's what we're trying to do. We really have three central points to the way that we are approaching this policy. Number one, we wanted to provide relief for the residents of San Francisco. Secondly, I wanted to be able to start having a statewide conversation. I've been contacted by at least one other DA. So we want to get a conversation going around the state with elected DAs to start doing the same thing. Thirdly, I'm also hoping to begin a national conversation on this issue.
SHAPIRO: You said that the felony convictions will be reviewed individually. Stretching back to 1975, I assume that's a lot of felony convictions. How long do you expect this to take?
GASCON: Well, we - we're hoping to get all this done within a year.
GASCON: And you know, we've already taken a quick look. Under Prop 64, if you have other convictions for violent felonies, you automatically do not qualify for relief. So there are a lot of people who may have a marijuana conviction, but they also have other convictions that would disqualify them. So we're evaluating that. And it looks like we may have about 5,000 cases that actually would qualify under Prop 64 for felony relief.
SHAPIRO: George Gascon is the district attorney for San Francisco. Thanks for joining us.
GASCON: My pleasure. Thank you.
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Correction Feb. 9, 2018
In this story, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón mistakenly tells host Ari Shapiro that felons in California are not allowed to vote. In fact, felons are only barred from voting while incarcerated in prison or on parole.