Code for America Pot Charge Expungement Saved County $35 million

There was great fanfare last February after District Attorney George Gascón said he would automatically remove 40 years’ worth of cannabis charges from San Franciscans’ criminal records. The move, known as expungement, promised to correct the galling injustice of wealthy investors getting rich from legal marijuana while hundreds of thousands of Californians were still stuck in prison, or being shut out from employment, housing, or other opportunities because of their past cannabis misdemeanor or felony convictions.

But did this ever actually happen?

SF Weekly looked into it, and found that yes, all 9,362 San Franciscan marijuana charges dating back to 1975 were indeed automatically removed. But no one was ever notified that the charges were struck from their records, and the process was not as ‘automatic’ as it sounded.

“There were some court documents and coordination that had to occur,” district attorney spokesperson Alex Bastian tells us. (Bastian was on the previous district attorney’s staff when the charges were removed.) “There were filings, and a good amount of coordination with the courts.”

Each of the 9,362 charge removals had to be processed by the court system. The DA’s office then had to confirm that each record was expunged, the legal term for sealing and removing a charge from public record.

“If someone’s conviction has been expunged, it cannot be accessed by civilian databases,” Bastian says. “That’s what’s so important about this.”

This process had existed before, and the forgiveness of past pot charges was baked in to the recreational marijuana law that Californians approved in 2016. But getting those charges erased involved such significant legal and court fees that only 23 people with those 9,000-plus charges had petitioned the San Francisco DA to do so.

Until this effort. San Francisco became the first county in the U.S. to employ a high-tech ‘mass-expungement’ algorithm developed by S.F.-based nonprofit Code for America, processing bulk data to determine eligibility to have past marijuana offenses removed.

The process took minutes, instead of months or years, and it cost the county just four cents to process each record, compared to an estimated $3,757 per record under the previous, labor-intensive bureaucratic model. That’s a total cost of about $374 instead of $35.1 million.

“This effectively just changes the scale at which we can serve justice,” Code for America founder Jennifer Pahlka said at a press conference after the charges had been removed.

This Code for America platform has since been used by Los Angeles, Contra Costa, and San Joaquin to clear those counties’ cannabis records. It’s going nationwide, too, as thousands of Chicago area residents are also getting their convictions cleared through the Code for America platform.

The platform’s Clear My Record program will remove cannabis charges, unless they’re tied to greater violent criminal offenses like murder. The process is practically instant. But San Franciscans who had their pot charges expunged were never sent a notice, and confirming the charge was removed is a lengthy and not-at-all modernized San Francisco Hall of Justice nightmare.

“Anyone that has a conviction can always go check their record,” Bastian says. “If people want to find out what their court history and conviction status is, they can go to the courthouse criminal conviction window and obtain their records there.”

Easier said than done. He refers to the Criminal Clerk’s Office at 850 Bryant St., Room 101, which is only open until 2 p.m. on weekdays. And you can’t see your status unless you have your arrest case number or RAP sheet (yes, they actually call it a RAP sheet), which you have to procure in advance upstairs on the 4th floor at the San Francisco Police Department Identification Bureau.

That process can cost you anywhere from $15-$50. San Francisco criminal records cannot be viewed online, so you can only review your own criminal records if you visit 850 Bryant St. in person.

The California Department of Justice estimates that there are 220,000 people statewide with past cannabis charges that are now eligible for removal from records.