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Weed whacking: Tucson on right track with plan to seal some criminal records

What the Devil won't tell you

Weed whacking: Tucson on right track with plan to seal some criminal records

  • Crime arrests shouldn't be life sentences in terms of finding jobs and housing.The Tucson City Council is making moves to assure they aren't.
    MadMup/FlickrCrime arrests shouldn't be life sentences in terms of finding jobs and housing.The Tucson City Council is making moves to assure they aren't.

People with petty marijuana convictions and minor crimes on their record may have those expunged or documents sealed if the Tucson City Council moves ahead with a measure it will discuss Tuesday.

In 2020, voters approved a ballot proposition legalizing recreational marijuana use. Part of that measure's language included provisions allowing people to have their convictions expunged.

One problem: The 10,000 or so people eligible aren't taking the new law up on the offer and those case files are just sitting in Tucson City Court.

It can be a bureaucratic headache that's fixed with the help of an attorney. A lot of those folks with pot busts on their records haven't been able to afford lawyers. Why not? Well, maybe because they were whacked for weed and have had problems getting a job because of it.

Then something weird happened. The Maricopa County Attorney's Office got progressive and began proactively just expunging those records.

The city of Tucson noticed it was to the right of Maricopa County prosecutors and has decided to get right with karma. Councilmember Kevin Dahl asked City Attorney Mike Rankin to start up a similar program.

Something even weirder happened last spring that is just having an impact now.

The Arizona Legislature got progressive.

It passed a law that took effect Jan. 1, allowing people to have certain crime records sealed. These include crimes up to class 2 felonies.

The law is a bit complicated in that it lays out a process applicants must follow that gives the judge discretion over parts of the process and victims and prosecutors the chance to nix the whole thing after a public hearing. Only those who have paid their fines and completed the terms of their sentencing are eligible.

Some records can not be sealed. DUI's for instance, will remain public so long as this Legislature is in charge.

Again, Dahl asked in November to see the city actively seek out cases for sealing. 

Here's the deal, though. 

Rankin says fine. He's fine with it. He just can't afford the staff time required for such an enterprise. So he has tapped the University of Arizona Civil Rights Restoration Clinic to do much of the work.

So they are in talks with each other for law students to take up the task.

The idea is still in the talking stage but it's definitely worth pursuing.

Andy Siliverman, the clinic's director, says the law school is definitely interested.

"Working on these cases is a good learning experience for students," Silverman said. "One of the reasons it’s a good learning is that a student can take a case from the beginning to the end in the course of one semester."

Second-year law students can even represent clients during hearings, in limited circumstances.

Having a record can be highly problematic for folks who try to get on with their lives after serving their time and paying their fines.

"You’d be amazed how many people have even felony convictions," Silverman said. "Those convictions can have a big effect. It can affect job applications and it can affect housing."

So think about it this way: Someone is convicted for a crime, completes their sentence and goes out to re-assimilate only to find that they can't find a job or a place to live. No wonder there's a recidivism problem.

If they did their time, they did their time. They shouldn't be subjected to a lifelong sentence that kneecaps their ability to function in society. Their civil rights should be restored – all of them. If they commit another crime, then society is free to convict them again and sentence them one more time.

Instead, the law has become a way to forever sort us into categories of good and bad people. That's not what law is supposed to do but has been doing far too often.

Can this clinic process 10,000 cases in a year? Probably not. But then again, neither can the city attorney's office in all likelihood. It's not just a matter of filling out a form and the documents get sealed and the records get expunged. There's a process involved.

This is the web portal to the Tucson City Court and the Pima County Justice Court to do just that.

So it may seem weird that a journalist is asking to limit the amount of public information and quash the public's right to know. 

But there are good reasons to free people from eternal judgment.

One, possessing pot is not a crime anymore. So what's the point?

Second, the public isn't really asking to know if a certain individual is a drug user or has ever committed a crime before hiring or renting to them.

Employers hire thieves and felons all the time. Landlords rent to drug users.

It's just that a lot of the "undesirables" look pretty desirable because they were brought up with the proper GPS coordinates. These are places that aren't over-policed so the public is none the wiser.

In other words, you are associating with criminals all the time. They just didn't get caught.

Go search the bedrooms of every teenager in the Foothills right now and see how much contraband is found. Put a DUI check point out front of the 49er Country Club and see how many people get arrested after a stop at the 19th hole. Wear a wire hanging out with doctors and lawyers when they discuss their youthful indiscretions (aka, the best days of their lives).

Police, meanwhile, are focused on "high-crime" areas that have high crime rates in part because of poverty and lack of opportunity but also because cops are more forcefully monitoring human behavior.

I'm not saying we're all bloody criminals. One of the things I marvel at is how easy it is for some to shoplift without any real chance of getting caught. Yet the vast, vast, vast majority of us don't do it. We almost exclusively adhere to the social contract.

Sometimes people get stupid because they are people. I'm not talking about murder or rape or being a kingpin in child sex trafficking. Although, one could make an argument that when people's debt is paid, it's paid in full and until it is, don't let them out.

What employers and property management companies are asking for is a short cut to saying no. They want to find people the law has sorted into pile B, "The Undesirables." That's a whole 'nother column, but for now it's good to see the City Council looking for ways to unsort them and say, hey, they are just part of the same smelly mass of humanity as the rest of us.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for nearly 30 years and is a former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

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