LOS ANGELES -- With the tap of a computer key, prosecutors in Los Angeles and Chicago plan over the coming weeks to erase tens of thousands of marijuana convictions from people's criminal records, a key part of a progressive crime-fighting strategy that is seeking to rectify the wrongs of a decades-long drug war.
Prosecutors and legal aid advocates say purging arrest and conviction records removes barriers to jobs and housing, helping to stabilize and improve troubled communities. Jettisoning marijuana convictions has taken on added urgency as more states legalize the possession and sale of marijuana, a lucrative trade, and confront the vexing question of how to handle convictions for crimes that are no longer crimes.
"We are undoing the harm prosecutors have caused," said Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx, whose office handles prosecutions in Chicago, a city of 2.7 million residents and who has been one of the leading national advocates of expunging people's records.
"Prosecuting these cases was not in the public interest, or in the interest of public safety. These convictions kept people out of the housing market, job market," Foxx said. "Folks are going to be making billions of dollars on this, selling it by the metric ton, on the backs of communities that were devastated by the war on drugs. Is that fair? No."
Foxx plans on Wednesday to begin clearing nearly 18,000 misdemeanor convictions for possessing less than an ounce of marijuana. The convictions are the first of potentially hundreds of thousands of marijuana cases, including felonies, that could be wiped from the county's court system.
Los Angeles County prosecutors say they plan to expunge or reduce to lower-level offenses some 50,000 marijuana convictions. The convictions could involve any of four different charges: possessing marijuana, cultivating marijuana, possessing marijuana for sale, and selling or transporting marijuana.
"So many people, particularly in communities of color, have been disproportionately affected by cannabis convictions," Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey said in a statement. "My prosecutors are working diligently to ensure that we are on track to expunge or reduce 50,000 felony convictions in coming weeks."
Lacey is seeking reelection next year and facing a challenge from former San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, who led an effort to purge marijuana convictions in his previous post.
Prosecutors are clearing convictions in response to state legislation that requires the automatic clearing of such criminal records. California, Illinois and New York have passed laws that put the onus on officials to clear the records, and other states are likely to follow suit.
Critics argue that automatically erasing such records is a mistake for a variety of reasons. The process could lead to errors, and convictions should be cleared on a case-by-case basis, not under a blanket policy, they say. Marijuana also has serious collateral consequences, they argue, pointing out that the illicit marijuana trade often was tied to violent drug gangs.