But thousands of Michiganders have already been marked with the stigma of a marijuana conviction, for actions that wouldn’t be illegal once Proposal 1 is in force.
Michigan lawmakers could take up pending legislation that would make it easier to expunge past marijuana convictions in their upcoming lame-duck session. If the outgoing incumbents fail to act, Michigan’s new governor and Legislature should take up this issue next year.
Over the last five years, 117,123 Michiganders were arrested and charged with misdemeanor marijuana offenses, according to Michigan State Police statistics, the Detroit Free Press reported earlier this month. Nearly 50,000 of them were convicted.
Last year alone, more than 20,000 people were arrested in Michigan for the sort of low-level marijuana possession or use that Prop 1’s passage would render aboveboard. In 2016, 3,670 people were in prison, jail or on probation for felony marijuana convictions, according to a Michigan Department of Corrections annual report for that year. Some felony marijuana convictions are for high-level distribution charges; those offenses remain illegal even after Prop 1.
But any criminal conviction, even one that results in probation rather than jail time, can be a barrier to finding employment or housing. It can bar the offender from ever finding employment in a field like health care. Banks may consider a criminal conviction a reason to deny credit. Colleges may reject applicants for admission, and even those who are admitted may not be eligible for federal financial aid if they have drug-related convictions.
It’s brutally unfair that Michiganders convicted of marijuana possession pre-Proposal 1 should continue to face these structural barriers for an offenses that no longer carry criminal penalties.
Some prosecutors around the state have already said they’ll drop pending marijuana-related cases for offenses that wouldn’t be illegal post-Prop 1.
Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer has said she will use the governor’s power of clemency to free currently incarcerated marijuana offenders. Given the margin by which Michiganders approved Proposal 1 — 56 percent for, 44 percent against — that would be a judicious use of the governor’s power to pardon.
But it’s just the first step.
Michigan’s Legislature must also smooth the path for past marijuana offenders to clear their records.
State Rep. Sheldon Neeley, D-Flint, introduced two bills this summer that would make it easier for Michiganders with past marijuana offenses to expunge their criminal records. The bills have been referred to the House Law and Justice committee chaired by state Rep. Klint Kesto, R-Commerce Twp., a former assistant county prosecutor.
Neeley’s bills are similar to laws other states that have legalized recreational marijuana use have adopted.
Expungement is currently limited to offenders whose transgressions fit specific circumstances, said John Cooper, associate director of policy and research at Safe & Just Michigan, and can be a burdensome process. But he added that automatic expungement for previously convicted offenders is logistically complicated and would involve coordination of potentially hundreds of thousands of records between state agencies and local court systems.
But these are logistical obstacles, not philosophical or moral arguments, and a Legislature that understands the inherent unfairness of incarcerating or penalizing offenders for actions that are no longer illegal must act.
And they shouldn’t stop there.
Earlier this decade, a suite of bipartisan criminal justice reforms dubbed the “smart justice” initiative briefly grabbed legislative attention. Aimed at reducing the prison population, the initiative, which enjoyed business community support, would have diverted non-violent offenders to probation or counseling, released more elderly inmates, and created mechanisms to equip offenders with post-prison skills.
But these well-intentioned and cost-effective reforms were gutted by lawmakers fearful of being perceived as soft on crime.
It’s time to revive those reforms, and the attention focused on the prison system during this post-Prop 1 discussion could offer an opening to re-evaluate how our entire criminal justice system can become more effective and more fair.
— DETROIT FREE PRESS (TNS)