The push to legalize the adult use of marijuana is not new to Arizona and while attempts at decriminalization have failed in the past, this year the effort passed through a ballot initiative of the people, Proposition 207.
While the purpose of Prop. 207 will undoubtedly be the topic of great debate in the future, one of the purposes of Prop. 207 is abundantly clear.
People who consume, possess or transport marijuana for personal use should not bear the overwhelming burden of a felony conviction now, in the past or in the future.
Before Prop. 207, the possession of less than two pounds of marijuana in Arizona was classified as a class 6 felony.
Having a felony conviction on your record in Arizona is devastating and has life-lasting implications.
Beyond the prospect of hefty fines and potential prison time, an individual convicted of a felony in Arizona loses a great deal of important and fundamental constitutional rights. Some of these rights include the right to possess a firearm or other deadly weapon, the right to vote, the right to hold public office and the right to sit on a jury. Perhaps the most debilitating thing of all about felony convictions in Arizona is that they literally never go away.
Beyond very narrow exceptions in Arizona law, no matter the circumstances surrounding a felony conviction, there is no mechanism to fully recuperate from such a conviction. Beyond the loss of an individual’s constitutional rights, a felony conviction often makes what should otherwise be a process of growth and fulfillment an unnecessarily arduous and conquering one. That is, the process to secure fundamental and basic necessities such as housing, employment, insurance and many others. Thanks to Prop. 207, Arizona now has its first expungement law and the expungement portion of the law is written in a way that will undoubtedly make a positive impact on all of Arizona.
Beginning July 12, 2021, an individual who was arrested, charged, convicted or otherwise adjudicated of certain enumerated marijuana-related crimes in the new law will be eligible to have their records expunged. What have the people of Arizona decided “expunge” means? Well, it really means at least five things:
(1) Vacates the judgment of adjudication or conviction.
(2) Expunges all records of the arrest, charge, conviction, adjudication and sentence.
(3) Restores all civil rights that were revoked as a result of the conviction.
(4) Notifies all involved prosecuting and law enforcement agencies of the expungement and requires them to seal all records.
(5) Requires that the clerk of the court seal all records relating to the expunged arrest, charge, adjudication, conviction or sentence and prohibit access to those records by anyone other than the accused or convicted individual.
The law also seems to give the court very little discretion in granting a request for expungement. Essentially, if you meet all of the requirements, the court must grant the expungement. Also, the law permits eligible individuals to petition the court before the July 12 eligibility date, and our office has already been preparing to get those submitted.
It’s hard to say just how many Arizonans the new expungement law will impact, but it can be said with certainty that this will benefit Arizona as a whole by broadening access to essentials such as jobs and housing. It will drop barriers that stop our neighbors and community members from fulfilling their potential and from chasing their dreams that otherwise may have seemed impossible with a felony conviction on their record. So, why stop here?
We know that people make mistakes and it is becoming universally accepted that with time and hard work, people can recover from those mistakes and change for the better. That said, should we really be holding people back from reaching their full potential because they made a mistake in their past? Should the availability to earn back your reputation and prove that you are not the mistake you made in the past be non-existent? This is where we are at right now as a state and where we have been for far too long. What good do oppressive policies like these do for our state and why do we still have them? We should be incentivizing people to do their absolute best, and what better way to do that than through providing an authentic chance at redemption?
The solution is evident – keep the momentum going and pass a more expansive expungement law in Arizona. My hope is that the Arizona Legislature thinks about these questions, listens to their constituents with the passage of this recent expungement law, and takes the role of forging a path to an attainable end for those who have made mistakes to redeem themselves and become more productive members of society. It’s not only the right thing to do, it is the best thing to do for Arizona.
Steven Scharboneau Jr., is an attorney at Stone Rose Law, and a board member and legislative advocate with Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice.