The move, which comes years after California voters legalized weed, reverses decades of drug enforcement that disproportionately targeted people of color — who then faced barriers in finding housing and jobs and enrolling in school.
Lacey this week filed a motion asking a judge to erase 62,000 felony convictions dating to 1961 and 4,000 misdemeanor convictions in 10 cities across the county. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Sam Ohta signed the order Tuesday.
That means 22,000 people no longer have felonies on their records 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.”
Speaking at a news conference Thursday, Lacey said that her office went a step beyond what the law requires and also fully dismissed felony convictions for cultivating, transporting or selling marijuana for people who are over 50 or under 21, haven’t had a felony conviction in the last 10 years or have completed probation for cannabis convictions.
Lacey is seeking a third term running the nation’s largest local prosecutor’s office and is facing an unexpectedly tough race against two challengers running on reform platforms in the March 3 primary.
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 were 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 as many as 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 review marijuana cases eligible for dismissal and decide whether to challenge any by July of this year. The court must then automatically clear those that aren’t contested. Illinois and New York also have passed laws that put the onus on officials to clear records.
Outside experts and advocates say the push to automatically clear pot convictions will gain more traction as more states legalize marijuana, the public becomes more comfortable with the drug’s use and progressive prosecutors become more influential in the criminal justice system.
In addition to the three states that have passed laws for automatic expungement of conviction records, 12 others have enacted laws that allow residents to seek the erasure of low-level cannabis convictions.
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, advocates said.
The Drug Policy Alliance hosted clinics, recruiting attorneys to walk people through the arduous process of clearing their records. Some criticized how long it took Lacey to take action.
“We had to do all the legwork … that could’ve been done with one decision,” said Eunisses Hernandez, L.A. campaign coordinator for JustLeadershipUSA, which works to reduce mass incarceration.
Hernandez said Lacey’s announcement — less than three weeks before the primary election — was a publicity stunt to boost her credentials as she faces two far more progressive candidates in the heated race for district attorney.
“She’s doing it now to bump herself up as a progressive,” Hernandez said. “She could’ve taken this action years ago.”
Lacey said she was unable to act before getting the green light from city attorneys to dismiss the 4,000 misdemeanors in jurisdictions including Long Beach, Torrance, Pasadena, Inglewood, Burbank, Santa Monica, Hawthorne, Redondo Beach and Hermosa Beach. She said her office received the final approval late last week.
Thursday’s news resonated strongly with Ingrid Archie, 38, who had a felony conviction for possession of one pound of marijuana reduced after passage of Proposition 64.
The South L.A. resident said that when she was fired from her job as a sales agent for a customer service company in 2009, she knew it was because of the marijuana conviction.
For the next six years, Archie applied to countless jobs but remained unemployed. She depended 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.
Drug reform advocates said decades of 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.
“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 the news conference with Lacey.
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 D.A.’s office is challenging 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 primary 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 Gascón, the former San Francisco district attorney who is running against her.
The Coalition for DA Justice and Accountability said it is among a number of nonpartisan groups co-hosting the debate, but still offered to withdraw its participation “because we do not want our association with a public forum to be used by any campaign as an excuse to not participate.”
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 Gascón 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.”
Gascón was the first district attorney in California to announce a partnership with Code for America to clear marijuana convictions in San Francisco. His office dismissed 9,362 marijuana convictions, an initiative he announced before state law required prosecutors to review the cases. Of those affected in San Francisco, 33% were black and 27% Latino.
“Government shouldn’t wait for the people to take action, it should take action for the people,” Gascón said in a statement Thursday. “For years, and in spite of legalization, individuals were denied employment and housing opportunities because of old marijuana convictions. Lack of access to a job and housing are primary factors that drive recidivism, and that’s why I took this action two years ago.”
Times staff writer Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this report.
This article originally appeared in the LA Times.