In early July, Governor Gina M. Raimondo signed a bill that allows Rhode Islanders to expunge their marijuana convictions for possession of an ounce or less, so long as they have paid their court fines and fees. State Senator Harold M. Metts and Representative Scott Slater sponsored the legislation.
The new law allows for expungement of records of marijuana offenses that are now decriminalized in the state. A criminal conviction can result in loss of opportunity in employment and housing.
In a statement, Senator Metts said: “As a state, we have slowly been moving toward recognizing that more than punishment, compassion, reconciliation and prevention will better serve not only the individual, but society as a whole. The effects of harsh punishment and criminal records for minor drug offenses in particular have been poverty, lack of financial security and marginalization. This problem very disproportionately affects people of color and those who were already poor. If an act has been decriminalized since a person was charged and paid their price for it, that person shouldn’t have to keep paying the price in the form of being denied jobs and other opportunities because of their criminal record. Once an act has been decriminalized and we’ve decided it doesn’t count as an offense against society, there is no point to leaving that albatross hanging around the necks of those who were previously convicted. Let them move on, and they can better support themselves and their families and contribute to our communities and our state.”
Those with convictions for now-decriminalized marijuana offenses may petition the court in which they were convicted for an expungement. The expungement will be granted if the petitioner has complied with all the terms of sentencing, including jail time, fines, and fees, as assigned in each case. Rhode Island decriminalized the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana in 2013.
Specifically, the new law says that “Any person who is a first offender may file a motion for the expungement of all records and records of conviction for a felony or misdemeanor by filing a motion in the court in which the conviction took place; provided, that no person who has been convicted of a crime of violence shall have his or her records and records of conviction expunged; and provided, that all outstanding court-imposed or court-related fees, fines, costs, assessments, charges, and/or any other monetary obligations have been paid, unless such amounts are reduced or waived by order of the court.” As such, the law may apply not just to marijuana but to other convictions for offenses that are subsequently decriminalized.
Representative Slater said: “We must address the punitive laws on our books that don’t contribute to reducing crime and instead hold people back from gaining employment, taking care of themselves and their families and contributing to society. We did that when we decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, and allowing those who were already convicted of it to expunge that record is a way to correct the lingering negative effects.”
Colorado, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington have passed or are considering similar laws to allow for expungement of low-level possession offenses that have since been decriminalized or legalized. These laws have been promulgated as a means of reparative justice, in which those who have been most adversely affected by the war on drugs–minority and low-income community members–have an opportunity to clear their records.
What do you think? Is expungement on request enough? Should low-level marijuana offenses be expunged automatically? Leave a comment below.