LOS ANGELES -- Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey on Thursday announced the dismissal of 66,000 marijuana convictions in the county, a move to undo decades of drug enforcement that disproportionately targeted people of color years after California voters legalized weed.
The top prosecutor this week filed a motion asking a judge to erase 62,000 felony convictions dating back to 1961 and 4,000 misdemeanor convictions in 10 cities across the county. Superior Court Judge Sam Ohta signed the order Tuesday.
That means 22,000 people no longer have felonies on their record in California and 15,000 no longer have a criminal record at all. Of the 53,000 people who received relief, 32% are black, 45% are Latino and 20% are white.
"What this does is correct that inequity of the past," Lacey said in an interview. "It gives them a start, a new start."
The effort was part of a partnership with Code for America, a nonprofit tech organization that developed a computer algorithm to quickly analyze county data to determine which cases are eligible to be cleared under Proposition 64, which in 2016 legalized, among other things, the possession and purchase of up to an ounce of marijuana and allowed people to grow up to six plants for personal use.
The technology can scan the records of 10,000 people in "a matter of seconds," said Evonne Silva, Code for America's senior program director of criminal justice.
State legislation signed in 2018 required that California prosecutors automatically clear such criminal records by July of this year. Illinois and New York have also passed laws that put the onus on officials to clear the records.
Before the move, people had to petition the court on their own, but the process was time-consuming and cumbersome. Not many people even tried.
Prosecutors said decades of drug enforcement disproportionately targeted minorities. Studies have shown that people of color are more likely to be arrested and punished in connection with marijuana offenses, even though whites, blacks and Latinos use and sell marijuana at similar rates. The result, critics say, is a cycle of poverty and incarceration that has kept many minorities from getting jobs, going to school or finding housing.
A 2016 study found that although African Americans make up just 6% of California's population, they account for almost a quarter of those serving jail time exclusively for marijuana offenses.
The DA's office is holding off on automatically clearing 2,142 marijuana convictions it says are ineligible for relief because of the person's criminal history. Those individuals can still petition to be resentenced, the district attorney's office said.
Lacey's announcement came hours before her challengers in the March 3 race for district attorney were scheduled to face off in a debate. She dropped out of the event last week, saying one of the sponsors was linked to the biggest donor to the super PAC of George Gascon, the former San Francisco district attorney who is running against her.
Lacey, who is in her eighth year as the county's top prosecutor, also pointed to hecklers who yelled and chanted as she spoke during the debate she did attend last month, when she squared off against Gascon and a second challenger, Rachel Rossi, a former public defender.
"That's not a fair debate," Lacey said. "I'm prevented from expressing my points or hampered by expressing my points because people are screaming and shouting."
Gascon was the first district attorney in California to announce a partnership with Code for America to clear marijuana convictions in San Francisco. His office wiped 9,362 marijuana convictions. Of those who received relief, 33% are black and 27% are Latino.
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