HARTFORD – Gov. Ned Lamont announced the erasure of about 44,000 low-level marijuana possession convictions starting Jan. 2023, which some advocates called the first step of many to address the lasting consequences of the war on drugs.
On Jan. 1, records for possession of less than four ounces of marijuana between Jan. 1, 2000 and Sept. 30, 2015 would be automatically erased, and residents could tell their employers, landlords and schools that the conviction never occurred. Those convicted before or after that 15-year period must still file a petition in Superior Court for record erasure.
In a Tuesday press release, the Lamont administration said the policy was an integral part of 2021 legislation in which marijuana possession was legalized for residents 21 years of age and over.
“On January 1, thousands of people in Connecticut will have low-level cannabis convictions automatically erased due to the cannabis legalization bill we enacted last year,” said Lamont. “Especially as Connecticut employers seek to fill hundreds of thousands of job openings, an old conviction for low-level cannabis possession should not hold someone back from pursuing their career, housing, professional, and educational aspirations.”
But Ken Barone, project manager for the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy, told CT Examiner that while the policy was a good first step, the state government still needs to repair long-term inequities stemming from the war on drugs.
“Let’s just say, for example, that I was arrested 20 years ago for a cannabis-related offense, and let’s say that impacted me for the next 20 years. Maybe I had to serve some time, maybe I had a hard time getting a job,” said Barone. “Erasing my record is okay, but it doesn’t make up for my lost economic opportunity.”
Barone said that it would be more difficult to erase earlier convictions given the limits of the current filing system, because many prior convictions have never been filed electronically.
“When the war on drugs was most significantly impacting the country in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, there were a lot of people impacted by that,” Barone said. “But the reality is, it’s just harder to erase their record because of the way records were kept.”
Barone said the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy worked closely with the state’s Social Equity Council to identify state census tracts most significantly impacted by marijuana-related arrests. The disproportionate impact areas included Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport, Waterbury, Norwich and New London – cities with the largest populations of racial and ethnic minorities.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, Connecticut had a “slightly higher-than-average” racial disparity, with Black people four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than White people.
Of all Connecticut counties, ACLU found that New London County had the largest racial disparity, as Black residents were approximately nine times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.
Claudine Constant, public policy and advocacy director for ACLU of Connecticut, told CT Examiner that when considering the demographics of marijuana possession arrests, it was important to look at the police and prosecutors “whose discretion is at the heart of this conversation.”
“Black people and Black communities have more police and are policed more than white people. Point blank period,” Constant said. “And so, the likelihood of a Black person encountering police and then ending up in the system of mass incarceration increases significantly because Black and brown communities are just historically over-policed.”
Barone said the legislature should continue to erase more significant criminal records.
“Believe it or not, it’s not that common that somebody was arrested just for possessing a small amount of marijuana,” Barone said. “We’re talking about erasing part of a criminal record, which is good… Will it impact racial and ethnic disparities? I don’t know. But it’s certainly a step in the right direction.”
State Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, who voted against the legalization of marijuana in 2021, told CT Examiner that while he understood the desire to give residents a clean slate, it was important to have that information on record.
Kissel said that if an individual was only convicted for marijuana possession, erasure would not be critical. But when it came to sentencing for other crimes, he said, it was important for a judge to get a complete look into a defendant’s criminal record.
“As a general rule, I think it’s better to have the information out there,” Kissel said. “We give judges quite a bit of latitude, and I think allowing them to see the entire criminal justice background of an individual is more helpful than not, especially if the individual’s actions become more serious.”
Given the large amount of diversionary programs in the state, Kissel added, it was also difficult to get convicted for marijuana possession in Connecticut. He said those charged with possession were most likely repeat offenders.
“If you were arrested just for a possession charge, there’s many ways to just take a diversionary program, follow the rules of that program, and then you wouldn’t even have any record at all,” Kissel explained. “So, for an individual to have a conviction for a possession charge, my guess is that they’ve already had at least one bite at the apple regarding a diversionary program.”
But Alexander Taubes, a New Haven civil rights lawyer, told CT Examiner that the more residents whose records could be expunged, the better.
“A lot of people – because of the war on drugs and on cannabis – needed to rely on having a large amount of marijuana or cannabis on them, so they may have been charged with possession with intent to sell,” Taubes said. “So there’s a lot more charges and offenses in criminal records that are related to cannabis which are, I would presume, not being touched by this.”
The policy also required those convicted of selling or possessing with intent to sell before July 1, 2021 to file a petition in Superior Court. But Taubes said that to many, filing a petition was a “completely foreign concept.”
”The solution, of course, is that you can always hire an attorney to petition the Superior Court. That’s something that we do, it’s like nothing to an attorney,” Taubes explained. “But that’s kind of the problem. Because it’s not like a big thing for an attorney, it’s probably not going to garner a very big attorney fee, so not a lot of attorneys aren’t really open to doing it.”
Taubes added that attorneys who were willing to file a petition might charge residents “an arm and a leg,” to do so. He said that like many other legislation intended to support equity, the policy may only benefit those who can afford to take advantage of it. The Lamont administration said that under Connecticut’s Clean Slate laws, criminal justice agencies would continue to implement information technology upgrades needed to automatically erase other eligible criminal records, such as most misdemeanors, most Class D and Class E felonies and most unclassified felonies with a possible prison sentence of five years or less. The erasure system, they said, was expected to be fully implemented in the second half of 2023.