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California was supposed to clear cannabis convictions. Tens of thousands are still languishing

Rodriguez speaks at a mixer for Project Rebound, which supports formerly incarcerated students on Cal State campuses. After spending more than two years in prison, Rodriguez found a place for herself in higher education and went on to receive a graduate degree at UCLA.   (Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

Nearly two decades ago, on a high desert road in San Bernardino County, Sara Rodriguez was pulled over and arrested with 10 small packets of cannabis in her car. She was convicted of a felony, possession of the drug for sale, and eventually spent more than two years in prison.

In the years since, Rodriguez, 39, became the first in her family to go to college, and in June graduated from UCLA with a master’s degree in social welfare.

But Rodriguez still has a felony on her record — a potential black mark for employers and the state social work licensing board.

When California voters legalized cannabis for recreational use in 2016, one promise was the creation of a legal pathway through the courts for clearing many past marijuana-related convictions or reducing them to a lesser charge.

It was a step championed by reform advocates, meant to right many of the injustices inflicted by the nation’s war on drugs that was disproportionately waged on poor people and communities of color.

But despite a 2018 law intended to speed up and automate the process, tens of thousands of Californians like Rodriguez are still stuck with felonies, misdemeanors and other convictions on their records, a Los Angeles Times investigation found.

I just feel very overwhelmed and stuck. I was under the impression that this would happen automatically, but it’s not.

SARA RODRIGUEZ

At least 34,000 marijuana records still have not been fully processed by the courts, according to an analysis of data provided by court officials throughout the state. The number was more than twice that in August, before The Times began questioning the slow processing times.

The delays in clearing drug charges can have dire consequences for those seeking employment, professional licensing, housing, loans and in other instances in which background checks are required.

The courts have emerged as the primary bottleneck in a process that has entangled the state Department of Justice and prosecutors’ offices in 58 counties. Although a number of counties have moved aggressively to clear records, many others have moved at a snail’s pace. Some courts — including in Riverside and San Bernardino, where Rodriguez was convicted — haven’t fully processed a single case.

A woman stands in front of a courthouseRodriguez’s felony conviction was one of about 5,400 cannabis cases that were essentially gathering dust in San Bernardino. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Court officials blamed a combination of factors for delays, including COVID-19, staffing shortages, outdated case management systems, old records that require manual review and technical issues.

To Read The Rest Of This Article By Kiera Feldman on Los Angeles Times

Published: January 13, 2022

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