Thanks to California’s new marijuana laws, prior convictions for possession are being removed from criminal records.
Within Proposition 64, provisions were made to help those with non-violent marijuana convictions recover from incarceration. In March alone, 2500 requests for reduced penalties were made. While there is no record of the results, prosecutors are typically not fighting the requests, thereby honoring the will of California voters.
“Whether we agree with the law or not, our job is to enforce it,” said Rachel Solov of the San Diego District Attorney’s Office.
“It’s the right thing to do. If someone’s in custody and they shouldn’t be in custody anymore, we have an obligation to address that.”
Solov’s office has previous experience dealing with an influx of reduced sentences and prosecutorial reform. Back in 2014, California’s Prop 47 revised sentences for a handful of nonviolent felonies to misdemeanor charges. This time, prosecutors compiled a list of those currently incarcerated who could be immediately released, as well as those on probation eligible for early release. They then provided the list to the public defender’s office to expedite the process. According to Solov, San Diego county reduced sentences and/or eliminated convictions for more than 400 cases within the first two months of the passage of Prop 64, more than any other county in the state.
But as with any new legislation, there are kinks to be worked out. Prop 64 is landmark legislation for both marijuana legalization and criminal justice reform, but the legal community has been relatively unprepared for the changes and the number of people seeking help. Attorney Bruce Margolin specializes in cannabis law in Los Angeles, and has witnessed how the legal community has struggled with educating themselves on the new legislation, which was expected to pass months in advance.
“They were totally unprepared,” Margolin said.
“It’s amazing. You would have thought they should have had seminars to get them up to speed so we don’t have to go through the process of arguing things that are obvious, but we’re still getting that.”
Groups such as Drug Policy Alliance have offered free legal seminars to help those with marijuana convictions revise their criminal records.
In a state like California, which has enjoyed a notoriously relaxed medical marijuana program for over two decades, marijuana convictions have still occurred. Jay Schlauch has been dealing with a felony charge for cannabis for almost 25 years. Like most felons, it has negatively affected his career and his personal life. With Prop 64’s promise to reduce sentences, Schlauch jumped at the opportunity.
“Why should I be lumped in with, you know, murderers and rapists and people who really deserve to get a felony?” he wondered.
Schlauch was originally sentenced to nine months in prison, but only served about 30 days. He appeared in a Southern California courthouse armed with letters commending him for earning a nursing degree and performing public service for veterans and disabled children. The court’s file for Schlauch’s was patchy due to the age of the case.
A prosecutor who reviewed the file wondered if he would be eligible for a revised sentence. While he was not charged with a gun crime, the prosecutor wondered if this fact deemed him a threat. Schlauch clarified that his weapons were legally purchased and registered, unloaded and secured under lock and key. His only charge was for possessing 8.5 pounds of cannabis with the intent to distribute, according to Margolin.
“I don’t see any reasonable risk of danger. It seems like he’s entitled,” said Judge Martin Herscovitz. “The petition is granted.”