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Americans favor legal weed–and second chances

People agree that legalizing weed isn’t enough–we also need to help the people whose lives were deeply affected by old, unfair policies.

Americans favor legal weed–and second chances
[Photo: JohnAlexandr/iStock]

Nearly 70% of Americans support the legalization of marijuana. About the same margin also support so-called “clean slate” legislation, an emerging judicial tool to that would automatically seal the records of people convicted of non-violent felonies or misdemeanors if they’ve proven they can stay crime-free, an especially important factor in making a tiny dent in countering the effects of the drug war that has imprisoned so many people for something we’re now acknowledging is not a crime.

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A new poll of 1,000 registered voters by the Center for American Progress and research firm GBA Strategies surveyed registered voters about both questions because there’s an obvious connection: As more states legalize marijuana there are questions about how to address the penalties incurred by people formerly convicted of possession of the drug.

“Public opinion, which clearly this poll makes clear, [is that] Americans want to see marijuana legalization,” says Rebecca Vallas, the director of poverty programs at the Center for American Progress.  “But it also shows that people understand the need for not just prospective relief, but also for helping all of those people who have existing records that now are still in need of justice and an answer.”

[Photo: CaraMaria/iStock]

The poll comes at a particularly timely moment for clean slate advocates: Pennsylvania is expected to adopt the first program into state law this month, which would seal low-level offender records if they can remain crime-free for 10 years. Michigan, Colorado, and South Carolina are weighing similar proposals, although the no-arrest window may vary. Federal legislation modeled after the Pennsylvania program is also expected to be proposed shortly, though may have a hard road ahead given the current makeup of Congress and the administration.

These programs fall under the broader discipline of redemption research, which Vallas says shows that most people who are convicted of minor nonviolent crimes and who can remain crime-free for three to four years have little chance of backsliding. At the same time, they face continual penalties. “Having even a minor criminal record can be a life sentence to poverty,” Vallas says. “It can stand in the way of employment, of housing, of education and training, even meager public benefits. Lots of people can end up with a misdemeanor record or even just a brush with the justice system that doesn’t even leave them with a conviction, and they can end up with a life sentence, the poverty and joblessness.”

Part of the problem is that even people who might be eligible to apply to have their records sealed or expunged aren’t aware or able to find the legal help to do it. Clean slate legislation fixes that by automating the process. “It’s just creating a computer algorithm that the courts can use and to query whether an individual qualifies based on the criteria set forth. It has the potential to save significant court costs as well from all of the one-off petitions that currently have to get filed every time someone is seeking to clear their record.”

The poll highlights how this idea has bipartisan support. “It’s an important and necessary companion to any marijuana legalization legislation,” Vallas adds, although she makes clear that this is really a gateway argument to get people to think how many other low-level offenses should ultimately be erased. “We’ve seen increasing awareness that we need to not just tackle sentencing reform and prison reform but also that we need to ensure that people truly have an opportunity to earn a second chance when they have moved on with their life.”

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About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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