San Francisco to Expunge Thousands of Cannabis Convictions With Help From an Algorithm

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Last year, the San Francisco District Attorney’s office said it was teaming up with Code for America, a nonprofit that aims to better government through technology. The goal was to use a Code for America algorithm to identify and expunge criminal records that could be cleared by California’s Proposition 64, which retroactively eliminated or reduced several cannabis-related crimes. This week, the office announced that over 8,000 convictions are now set to be expunged or reduced, with some cases dating all the way back to 1975.

In total, 9,362 cases have been identified by the district attorney’s office. This makes San Francisco the first city to clear all eligible cannabis convictions, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. According to San Francisco State Attorney George Gascón, his office had cleared about 1,230 convictions when the pilot program began in May 2018. Since then, 8,132 additional cases have been identified and will soon be presented to a judge. An added bonus is that the cases will be dropped or reduced for free without requiring the active participation of those impacted.

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When California voters passed Prop 64 back in 2016, in addition to legalizing cannabis, they also opened up previous pot convictions to be either expunged from records or have penalties reduced. The issue was there wasn’t an easy way to actually sift through the records in question and identify which cases were eligible under Prop 64.

Enter Code for America’s “Clear My Record” algorithm, which searches through criminal databases to find which cases contain codes for charges eligible for expungement or reduction under Prop 64. It then double checks to see if the cases meet certain conditions—violent felonies, for example, are ineligible. Lastly, it automatically fills the required forms for the district attorney’s office to file in court. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Gascón said Monday that although the pilot program was expected to take a year, the project completed both ahead of schedule and under budget.

“We could run through bulk data, run through the basic technology algorithm on that data and essentially determine eligibility for thousands of convictions in literally just a few minutes, as opposed to months, possibly even years,” explained Jennifer Pahlka, executive director of Code For America, at Monday’s announcement. “This has eliminated the need for the petition, and eliminated the need for the DA’s staff to go through the records one-by-one, which would have been two enormous obstacles.”

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Going forward, Gascón said in a statement he wants the program’s success to spur other district and state attorneys to follow San Francisco’s lead. “I hope that our success with Code for America can act as a catalyst for other leaders looking to engage in similar innovative and out-of-the-box methods to reform and rethink what our criminal justice system looks like,” he wrote.

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Victoria Song

Consumer tech reporter by day, danger noodle by night. No, I'm not the K-Pop star.