A simple algorithm could help clear thousands of cannabis convictions

A simple algorithm could help clear thousands of cannabis convictions
Image: Reuters/Daniel Becerril
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With marijuana reforms sweeping the US, cannabis investors and entrepreneurs are getting rich, while patients and stoners in dozens of US states legally enjoy all manner of tinctures, vape pens, edibles, and flowers. But there’s a cruel footnote to the story of legalization: The people who are still saddled with cannabis convictions. Prior convictions for possessing or selling the plant can still prevent people from landing jobs, renting apartments, or getting loans. What’s more, a disproportionate number of those affected with convictions are black and Latino.

Legalization measures in the US are often coupled with laws allowing people with convictions to petition to have them reduced (say, from a felony to a misdemeanor) or erased altogether. But the process, known as expungement, thus far has required a great deal of paperwork and access to legal assistance. Social justice organizations hold free expungement clinics where lawyers work pro-bono, but many of those affected by prior convictions may not even be aware they’re eligible to apply to have their records cleared.

Now the city of San Francisco and the non-profit organization Code for America have proven expungement can be vastly simplified. On Monday (Feb. 25), San Francisco district attorney George Gascón announced that officials will reduce or erase more than 8,000 cannabis convictions that were automatically identified with an algorithm developed by Code for America for its program, called Clear My Record.

With all due respect for the software engineers who created the program, “it’s just not rocket science,” said Code for America founder and director Jennifer Pahlka. “Ninety-nine percent of the work is human, bureaucratic, changing people’s minds about how things should be done.”

Once coders can access the data in bulk, she said, the algorithm itself is a basic one.

The San Francisco DA’s office announced its partnership with Code for America in May of 2018, and this week Gascón told the San Francisco Chronicle the work of identifying eligible expungement cases was completed under budget and ahead of schedule—a rare bureaucratic victory in California cannabis, which has been notoriously mired in red tape.

Pahlka said Code for America is already working with four other counties in a pilot program for Clear My Record, and will then publish a “blueprint” to allow counties nationwide to take advantage of their learnings. (In the meantime, Clear My Record also has an online interface to help individuals through the process, connecting them to legal help, walking them through the filing steps, and nudging them to completion with text messages.)

“Our goal is to convince the world that government can do these things at scale,” she said. “It’s not that hard. We just have to think differently about process, about technology, and about justice.”