Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey has secured the dismissal of 66,000 marijuana convictions dating back to 1961 that disproportionately targeted Black and brown people.
The move came decades after California legalized marijuana for medical use and was made possible in part by technology.
Lacey described it as the largest such undertaking in a single motion in state history.
Of the 53,000 people who received relief, 32 percent are Black, 45 percent are Latino and 20 percent are white, Los Angeles Times reported.
African Americans account for 6 percent of the population in California but represent almost a quarter of those incarcerated exclusively for marijuana offenses, according to a 2016 study.
South L.A. resident Ingrid Archie, 38, was fired from her job as a sales agent in 2009 after a felony conviction for possession of a pound of marijuana.
For the next six years, Archie applied to countless jobs but could not get hired and had to depend on food stamps to support herself and her three daughters.
“Not being able to get a job, not being able to find housing, those are things that mothers need to take care of your children,” she said.
Cannabis has been legal in California since 1996 for medical use and since 2016 for recreational use. As of October 2018, Proposition 64 decriminalized the possession and purchase of up to an ounce of marijuana and allowed people to grow up to six plants for personal use.
County prosecutors have had until July 1, 2020, to review records for all cannabis convictions that are eligible to be expunged or reduced,
The county partnered with Code for America, a nonprofit tech organization that developed a computer algorithm to quickly analyze county data and determine which cases were eligible to be cleared under Proposition 64.
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.
New York and Illinois also have laws to clear records for marijuana convictions. Twelve other states have laws making residents eligible to erase low-level cannabis convictions.
Whites, Black people and Latinos use and sell marijuana at similar rates, so mass incarceration of mostly people of color perpetuated a cycle of poverty, drug reform advocates say. Many people with marijuana convictions couldn’t get jobs, continued education or housing.
“Much of the crisis we face today with the homelessness or houselessness is a direct result of these kind of enforcements in the past,” L.A. County Public Defender Ricardo Garcia said at a news conference with Lacey.
Lacey is seeking a third term as Los Angeles County District Attorney. She runs the largest local prosecutor’s office in the U.S. and is in a tough race in the March 3 primary.
Her challengers want to know what took her so long.
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George Gascón, the former San Francisco district attorney who is running against her, was the first California D.A. to announce a partnership with Code for America to clear marijuana convictions in San Francisco.
“Government shouldn’t wait for the people to take action, it should take action for the people,” Gascón said in a statement. “For years, and in spite of legalization, individuals were denied employment and housing opportunities because of old marijuana convictions.”
People who want to know if their case is being cleared can contact the LA County Public Defender’s Office hotline at 323-760-6763.