The road to redemption: New California law can erase pot convictions

“Can I see your rap sheet?” the legal case worker asks.

Briana Quintanilla hands it over, several pages stapled together, a novella of wrongdoing.

If one were to picture a drug dealer, it’s unlikely one would imagine someone like Quintanilla, a bright, eloquent, 26-year-old mother of three from Riverside, a city just outside Los Angeles.

“I started just running with the wrong crowd and it just seemed like the thing to do, to start selling drugs: easy money, easy pay, fun life, which then led me to prison,” Quintanilla says.

The legal case worker determines some of Quintanilla’s drug charges could be expunged, although it may take weeks to find out from the courts. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

She was released in January. Now she wants to make a new start by pursuing a career as a medical assistant, but it may be virtually impossible with all those drug convictions hanging over her.

So she’s putting her faith in the legal caseworker sitting next to her, pouring over her record, at a so-called expungement fair.

In recent months, a number of organizations in various California cities have held clinics offering free legal help to those who want to get marijuana charges expunged from their criminal records.

That’s why Quintanilla lined up among hundreds of others inside a tent at a technical college in downtown Los Angeles.

Now she’s sitting in one of the college’s classrooms with a case-worker who will help her initiate the expungement process.

“Was it marijuana-related or something else?” he asks. 

“It was … a lot,” Quintanilla says.

Her answer is crucial because it may determine whether her record can be — at least partially — cleansed. 

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, there were more than 460,000 arrests in California for marijuana offences between 2006 and 2015. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

When Californians voted in favour of legalizing the sale of recreational marijuana in 2017, they made the law retroactive. That means Proposition 64 provides a pathway for people to overturn previous marijuana convictions.

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, a non-profit that promotes drug decriminalization and harm reduction, more than 460,000 people were arrested in California for marijuana offences between 2006 and 2015.

Armando Gudino with the Drug Policy Alliance says the expungement laws are helping to erase the effects of the war on drugs that he says has devastated communities of colour. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

“That is a lot of people who for some time have been carrying the burden of a conviction that is now legally able to be expunged,” says Armando Gudiño, the Drug Policy Alliance’s California policy manager.

“For many individuals, having a previous conviction expunged is literally a second start, an opportunity to start fresh.”

That’s exactly what 40-year-old Donald Bailey is hoping for. He has a lengthy criminal history that began at a young age despite, he says, having everything he needed.

Donald Bailey says he was ‘hypnotized by the street life’ and is looking to turn things around. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

“I was just hypnotized by the street life.” 

His convictions include “possession with intent to distribute more than 20 tons of marijuana across state lines,” Bailey says. 

Now he wants help to get that expunged from his record. That’s why he came to the expungement fair. 

Hundreds of people attended the so-called expungement fair held recently at a Los Angeles technical college. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

“This is something I’ve been meaning to do for a long time now,” Bailey told one of the volunteers assigned to triaging the cases.

The crowd is made up mostly of Latinos and African-Americans, not because they commit more marijuana offences than white people, Gudino says, but because they’re almost four times more likely to be arrested for them.

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, 86 per cent of people arrested between 2014 and 2016 in the U.S. for marijuana offences are African-Americans and Latinos.

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, even though white people are more likely to smoke marijuana, 86 per cent of those arrested for marijuana offences are African-Americans and Latinos. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

“The war on drugs has undoubtedly been the single most devastating piece of policy that has had the most significant impact on communities of colour in this country,” Gudiño says.

“The history of the war on drugs is synonymous with the history of the war on people of colour in communities that are low income. And what legislation like the marijuana regulation in California and others have done is have begun to scale back the history of the war on drugs and its devastating effect it’s had in communities.”

Bailey agrees.

“It wasn’t about the laws of marijuana, it was about filling the jails and prisons.” 

He says he’s been out of the criminal justice system for 10 years. And he’s made the most of his opportunities.

“I went back to college, maintained a 4.0 GPA,” Bailey says. Now he has a job in IT and owns his own photography studio. He’s paid his dues, he insists, and says his years selling weed shouldn’t count against him now. 

Bailey believes that since many of his drug offences are no longer illegal, those convictions should just ‘fall off’ on their own. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

“My marijuana convictions wouldn’t even have been convictions had the laws been then what they are now,” Bailey says. “You ask me, they should fall off immediately on their own.”

That’s what will happen soon in some cities like San Francisco. A decision by the city’s district attorney means over the next year thousands of low-level marijuana convictions will automatically disappear. 

But in most places across the state, felons have to petition the courts themselves, which Gudino says isn’t easy if you don’t have money for a lawyer. 

Even though Bailey now works at a law firm, he’s not keen for his bosses to find out about his past. So he’s going it alone.

“For me, it would be a peace of mind,” Bailey says. “I would be able to sleep soundly at night knowing that my indiscretions and the past mistakes that I’ve made, I’ve paid for them … there are no remnants of them.”

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