Expungement Explained

John Karwashan, Esq.

Criminal records for marijuana-related offenses have excluded individuals — disproportionately members of Black, brown and low-income communities — from engaging in meaningful opportunities in our state for far too long. Over the past 50 years, the failed War on Drugs has ruined lives in Rhode Island, and it is time for the state to fix it.

Automatic expungement is a critically important component that elected officials must include in any marijuana legalization bill. It calls for all marijuana-related offenses to be removed from criminal records, without requiring every individual with marijuana-related offenses on their criminal record to file the necessary paperwork in court — a process that can be confusing and difficult. Automatic expungement streamlines the process by putting the responsibility on those agencies that are primarily responsible for the creation of these criminal records. 

Another option being discussed among social equity advocates involves urging Governor McKee to use his constitutionally granted pardon power to issue a pardon proclamation for every individual with a marijuana-related offense on their record. These pardons, combined with sealing public records, could provide similar results to automatic expungement if done properly.

In states that have already legalized marijuana with some form of social equity component, we have seen the impact of these policies first hand. Tens of thousands have cleared their names, while citizens in other legal states struggle with a restricted expungement process. Several states have used the governor’s pardon power with success, including Illinois, where Gov. J.B. Pritzker recently announced the pardon of nearly 500,000 low-level marijuana convictions.

The benefits of automatic expungement or the governor using his pardon power are plenty. Automatically expunging marijuana-related offenses from criminal records will undoubtedly create more opportunity in our Black, brown, and low-income communities because marijuana-related offenses will no longer be used as barriers to employment, housing and student loans, among other things. Automatic expungement also would be a signal from our elected officials that they recognize the harm the failed war on marijuana has created and are ready to right those wrongs.