The Future of Marijuana Expungements is Automation

Everyone loves to hate algorithms. Companies mine your data to sell you more dumb tchotchkes. Governments use them to develop secretive and dystopian-sounding “predictive policing” tools.

But in one corner of the country, algorithms are being used to erase the impacts of the war on marijuana and free thousands of people from the stigma of a criminal record.

Around 20 million people have been arrested for marijuana over the past three decades, and as more states legalize or decriminalize pot, a pressing public policy issue has emerged: What should we do with all the people who have criminal records for something an ever-growing portion of the country thinks should be legal? Over the past four years, at least 10 states have passed laws addressing expungement of certain marijuana convictions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The problem is the mechanism for getting one’s marijuana record expunged varies from state to state, and in most places it ranges from burdensome to nearly impossible. Even where the process is supposed to be expedited, it often is reliant on the old government standbys: paper, people, and time.

That’s where Code for America, a nonprofit good-government group, came in. It asked a simple question: Why should people have to apply at all when the government already has all the data to determine if they’re eligible?

So the organization built an algorithm to automatically identify San Francisco residents eligible for expungements and file for them. The results were stunning. San Francisco officials announced in February that the program resulted in 9,000 expungements for marijuana offenses, and it did it all in minutes.

“On average it takes 15 minutes for an attorney to review just one record,” says Evonne Silva, senior program director for Code for America. “The fact that we can review thousands of records in minutes really unlocks the potential for this to apply to other marijuana legalization efforts in other states.”

Farther south in the Golden State, Los Angeles County and San Joaquin County recently announced they will launch similar projects with Code for America. Public officials estimate it will result in 54,000

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