Saturday, December 11, 2021
Yet another example of mass past marijuana convictions not addressed by petition-based record relief effort
Given my long-standing interest in marijuana record relief efforts – see, e.g., my early article, "Leveraging Marijuana Reform to Enhance Expungement Practices" and a later piece, "Ensuring Marijuana Reform Is Effective Criminal Justice Reform" – I was intrigued but not really surprised by this recent AP article out of North Dakota. The full headline of the article highlights its themes: "North Dakotans Seeking Pot Pardons Slow to a 'Dwindle': Only a few of the tens of thousands of people who may be eligible have taken advantage of a policy change that lets those with low-level marijuana convictions in North Dakota petition have their records wiped clean." Here are more of the details (with a little of my emphasis added):
Records show only 51 of the 70 people who applied have been granted pardons in the two years the policy has been in place. Another three people, who were recommended for pardons last month by an advisory board, are awaiting approval by the governor.
Republican Gov. Doug Burgum and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem both support the change, which brings North Dakota in line with some other states and cities that have been trying to fix problems that such past convictions have caused for people trying to find jobs and housing. Stenehjem estimated as many as 175,000 marijuana convictions over several decades could be eligible for pardons under the policy....
North Dakota already had allowed people to apply for pardons to remove marijuana-related offenses from their records, but the process was burdensome. While the new policy doesn’t go as far as other states that automatically dismiss or pardon convictions, it does involve an application process.
People applying for pardons must complete a 1½-page form that law enforcement reviews before placing a case on the pardon board’s agenda. It costs nothing to apply.
Burgum's spokesman said the number of applicants seeking to have their pot convictions erased has “slowed to a dwindle.” Only eight applications were received last month in the fourth round of the summary pardons.
I find this story especially interesting because North Dakota is one of the our smallest states (by population, only around 600,000 for decades until recently climbing to nearly 800,000) and also one of our whitest states (90-95% white with Native Americans as the largest minority group). And yet still, the state AG estimates "as many as 175,000 marijuana convictions over several decades," and these are apparently convictions, not just arrests. These data highlight how marijuana prohibition has contributed to mass criminalization everywhere and for everyone in the US, not just in urban areas and not just for minority populations.
Even more discouraging, of course, is that over a few years only a few dozen of the tens of thousands with these convictions have the knowledge and ability to fill out only a "1½-page form" to potentially secure a pardon. Concerns about low "uptake" for petition-based expungement systems often rightly stress how complicated and costly it can be for a person to figure out whether certain records are eligible for relief and/or to complete the application process (which can have a number of formal and informal costs). But here there seem to be few complications and minimal costs, and yet still apparently less than perhaps .05% of those potentially eligible have sought relief. Sigh.