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Sonoma County changes policy to proactively clear past pot-related convictions

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Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch abruptly changed course Monday, deciding her office will begin reviewing past marijuana-related crimes to reduce or expunge eligible convictions after saying last month it would not.

The policy shift was issued late Monday afternoon after what she said was further consideration related to the 75 or so petitions the office had already received from people seeking to dismiss a conviction, or to have a felony dropped to a misdemeanor. The chance at reclassifying these crimes was part of Proposition 64, which voters passed in 2016 to legalize recreational cannabis for adults 21 years old and up.

Ravitch, who is running for re-election this year, said in February her office would not follow the lead of other California counties, including San Francisco and San Diego, in proactively evaluating old cases. At that time, she stated her 50-attorney department did not have the resources to research an estimated 3,000 prior convictions, but would, instead, review individual petitions as they were filed.

“What I kept hearing is so many people would not go through that process, either because they didn’t understand it or they didn’t have the money, or they just didn’t have the wherewithal to follow through,” Ravitch said. “It’s still a resource issue, but we’ve juggled our resources and are doing what we can to make this a more seamless process.”

The two-page petition process was designed so a person could complete it without a lawyer, and there was no fee for submission. While someone with a misdemeanor could petition to have the case dismissed and then request their record be expunged, a person with a felony could have benefited from additional legal review.

Cannabis convictions that involve fraud or theft, or selling to a minor, do not qualify for the reclassification. The revised policy means that rather than people having to file the petition, all eligible cases will receive review for potential approval.

“The reality is people were convicted of felonies, in particular years ago when possession of cannabis was considered differently than it is today,” Ravitch said. “Voters have decided cannabis has a different identity now. Somebody convicted of felony cultivation back in the ’70s shouldn’t have to continue to carry that stigma if they qualify for having that case reduced or expunged.”

A deputy DA in the narcotics unit has been assigned to initiate reductions and expungements under the updated process. Ravitch did not commit to a specific time frame for how long that will take.

Marijuana advocates applauded Monday’s decision, seeing it as in step with the will of California’s voters, who backed Prop 64 with 57 percent of ballots cast. In Sonoma County, it was even more widely supported, at 59 percent.

“It’s not just a cannabis issue, but a social justice issue,” said Craig Litwin, president of the 421 Group cannabis consultancy. “It helps folks with less means clear their record. They won’t have to claim they were convicted of a crime on future job applications, recognizing that what people did under current standards is not a crime.”

And with Sonoma County joining the other counties that already have this work underway, there’s hope it will create a domino effect that produces similar policy elsewhere moving forward.

“This has potential to inspire DAs from others counties to do the same thing,” Litwin said. “It follows great leadership in doing what’s right … and helps us further turn the corner on the archaic and unjustified war on cannabis.”