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Having a drug arrest on your record can make it harder to get a job, rent an apartment, or get a loan. That’s why expunging past convictions for low-level marijuana offenses that are no longer crimes is a big part of legalization.
But there’s a large divide between talking about expungement and getting it done, and Massachusetts, one of the most progressive states in the union, appears to be failing. The state has expunged only a tiny portion of past marijuana convictions. Even adult-use marijuana became legal three years ago.
“Our expungement statute has been an utter failure,” Katy Naples-Mitchell, an attorney at Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, told the Boston Globe. “We could be helping people on a much grander scale, but instead we’re seeing this paltry, piecemeal effort — and even that has been almost totally frustrated, in part by a bench that is often a lot less progressive than the legislation it’s charged with carrying out.”
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Thousands of cases are being ignored
Data from the Massachusetts Probation Service shows that people with past convictions submitted 2,186 petitions to have their records expunged between January 2019 and July 2021. Of those, judges approved expungements on about 16 percent, according to the Globe.
Those are both small numbers considering that tens of thousands of people are impacted by past convictions for marijuana-related crimes.
In Massachusetts, past convictions eligible for expungement involve cases that are no longer crimes, including possession of fewer than two ounces or less of cannabis. The change only applies to Massachusetts convictions, not convictions for federal crimes or from other states.
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Communication is a big part of the problem
The public seems to have a general lack of understanding about the expungement law. They either are not aware of its existence or think it applies to cases beyond just low-level marijuana offenses.
For example, probation officials told the Globe that about 79 percent of the expungement requests they get are ineligible under law. Others appear completely unaware they can seek to have a record expunged, even if it’s eligible.
“People are not really aware of their right to seek expungement, let alone how to navigate the process for how to do it,” Daniel Medwed, a legal analyst and Northeastern University law professor, told public radio station WGBH in Boston.
Medwed outlined the process for those with eligible convictions. They can fill out a petition for expungement form available on Mass.gov. The document calls for details about the case. People then file the petition in the court where they were convicted. There is no filing fee. People can also request a hearing on the petition.
The judge determines if the expungement is eligible. If so, then the court directs the circuit court clerk and other state criminal justice agencies to expunge the record. They also request that federal agencies expunge any mention of the conviction from their records.
Expungement is different from closing a record. With an expungement, the conviction essentially disappears. As noted by Medwed, it means that a person can truthfully say they have “no record” of this particular case. It’s a powerful tool for immediately improving the life of a person convicted years ago for something the state no longer considers a crime.
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