Friday, December 3, 2021
Ohio GOP and NY Dem representatives introduce federal HOPE Act to support state cannabis expungement efforts and study collateral consequences
I was pleased to see this news via Marijuana Moment about a new federal bill to support state marijuana expungement efforts. Here are the basics:
As congressional lawmakers work to advance federal marijuana legalization, a bipartisan duo on Thursday filed a bill that would incentivize states and local governments to expunge cannabis records in their jurisdictions. Reps. Dave Joyce (R-OH) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) are sponsoring the legislation, titled the Harnessing Opportunities by Pursuing Expungement (HOPE) Act.
It would encourage states to provide relief to people with non-violent marijuana convictions through federal grants — the State Expungement Opportunity Grant Program, run through the Department of Justice — that would help cover the administrative costs of identifying and clearing eligible cases. The bill proposes to appropriate $2 million in funding to support the program for each fiscal year starting in 2023 and ending in 2032.
Specifically, the grants could be used by states to purchase technology used to facilitate expungements at scale, automate the relief process, fund legal clinics to help people get their records cleared and support “innovative partnerships” to provide mass relief....
Under the bill, state governors and local governments “shall submit to the attorney general an application at such time, in such manner, and containing such information as the attorney general may reasonably require” to qualify for the grants. Further, the legislation would require the attorney general to carry out a study on the impacts of cannabis convictions on individuals, as well as the financial costs for states that incarcerate people over non-violent marijuana offenses.
Officials in jurisdictions that receive the grants would be required to “publish on a publicly accessible website information about the availability and process of expunging convictions for cannabis offenses, including information for individuals living in a different jurisdiction who were convicted of a cannabis offense in that jurisdiction.” They would also need to “submit to the attorney general a report describing the uses of such funds, and how many convictions for cannabis offenses have been expunged using such funds.”
Longtime readers know that expungement policies and practices have long been of great interest to me, going back to my work years ago on an big early article, "Leveraging Marijuana Reform to Enhance Expungement Practices." and more recently through work done in part by the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (see here and here). So I am very excited to see this issue getting notable attention via this notable bill by two notable members of Congress.
That said, I must comment that the particulars of this short bill are a bit disappointing. For starters, allocating only $2 million per year to incentivize states to ramp up expungement seems woefully insufficient. From the state's perspective, a little money is better than nothing, but having a range of mandates tied to a very small revenue stream likely ensures this bill would have at most modest impact. Second, the issues that the US Attorney General is tasked to study in this bill are only a small portion of the issues raised by marijuana criminalization, and the bill seems only to look at the impact of past marijuana offenses that have been reformed rather than all marijuana prohibitions.
In the end, I presume this bill is highly unlikely to become law anytime soon, so the particulars may matter less than the useful discussion of the broader issues raised. Still, I hope that any future legislative proposals in this space are even bolder than this first notable effort.