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City In Washington To Vacate Misdemeanor Marijuana Convictions

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 10/11/2015 Andy Campbell

The Washington state legislature can't seem to pass a law that would vacate past misdemeanor marijuana convictions -- so one city decided to take matters into its own hands.

Spokane City Council on Monday voted 6-0 to pass legislation that will vacate municipal court convictions for misdemeanor marijuana possession prior to July 2014, according to The Spokesman-Review.

Spokane's measure was modeled after a state bill that was introduced to the legislature earlier this year but never made it out of committee. Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart, who proposed the measure, said it's unfair to penalize people with low-level convictions over a drug that's legal to possess in Washington.

"To me this is a no-brainer," he told The Huffington Post. "I

f you're 21 and have a misdemeanor conviction for having a little weed, you could carry that for the rest of your life -- that's not justice."

By early next year, Spokane residents will be able to apply to have their convictions vacated by Spokane Municipal Court. The law only applies to municipal court convictions, ensuring that felony drug charges are heard in district court, The Spokesman-Review reports.

The new measure will affect 1,817 people in the city who were convicted between 1997 and 2012, Stuckart said.

He said an overwhelming number of those convictions were handed down to African-American and Native American residents. African-Americans make up 2.9 percent of the population, yet 13.7 percent of misdemeanor marijuana convicts between 1997 and 2012 were black, Stuckart said, citing court data presented at the hearing.

"There were definitely some racial equality issues with these convictions," Stuckart said. "You see that throughout the criminal justice system. I hope this vote spurs other cities to act." 

He said he also hopes the vote will help students looking for federal aid or housing programs, since the federal government penalizes people applying for these program who have drug-related convictions. 

It's unclear how long it'll take other local and state jurisdictions to pass similar measures. Colorado, for example, has been overturning a few convictions through the court of appeals, likely paving the way for official legislation to expunge misdemeanors down the road. There's also a state law in place allowing some felony convictions to be kicked down to misdemeanors.

Oregon, on the other hand, appears to be leading the charge in getting past criminal records expunged. Portland’s Metropolitan Public Defender’s office is holding "expungement clinics" to help low-level felony or misdemeanor convicts get a clean record if 10 years have passed since their conviction and they have not reoffended. More serious convictions, like growing marijuana, could be up for record-sealing in 2016, according to CBS Seattle.

Stuckart said he would like to see Spokane pave the way for other cities -- and even the state -- to embrace vacate laws. 

"Across the country,  we need to give people second chances," he said.

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