Civil Rights

Advocates push for expungement of criminal records as General Assembly moves towards legalized marijuana

“In order to begin to repair the harm of this failed war on cannabis,” said Cherie Cruz, co-founder of the Formerly Incarcerated Union of RI, “we need to ensure that a state-initiated record clearance process is put in place to expunge the records of thousands of Rhode Islanders who have been criminalized for the same activity that is now legal.”
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Published on March 16, 2022
By Steve Ahlquist

A coalition of local progressive groups testified before the Rhode Island Senate Judiciary Committee legislators to amend S2430, a bill to legalize cannabis for adults 21 and older, to include a state-initiated automatic expungement of past cannabis offenses.

The hearing on the bill began with Senator Joshua Miller (Democrat, District 28, Cranston)’s presentation on his bill, which for the first time is identical to the version sponsored by Representative Scott Slater (Democrat, District 10, Providence) to be heard in the House.

Very little of Senator Miller’s presentation focused on the issue of expungement. Starting at 13m53s, Miller notes that the penalties outlined towards the end of the bill “sets up the structure for what would be available for expungement or a sealed record.

“I know you will be hearing from those who testify on how important it will be to get this structure right,” continued Senator Miller. “We made our best attempt, so has the Governor, the courts have been involved, the Attorney General has been involved, many of you [the Senators hearing the bill] have been involved. We see this as an ongoing discussion on how expungement or a sealed record will proceed forward.”

Senator Miller stressed that none of what he has heard from advocates suggesting changes has “derailed” the bill. He also added that input from advocates is “critical” in getting the bill right.

Senator Miller’s presentation, at 15 minutes, is a pretty concise explainer for the bill.

Advocates were clear that while they support the legalization of recreational marijuana, repairing the harms of decades of prohibition and criminalization requires a robust, state-initiated automatic expungement component.

“In order to begin to repair the harm of this failed war on cannabis,” said Cherie Cruz, co-founder of the Formerly Incarcerated Union of RI, “we need to ensure that a state-initiated record clearance process is put in place to expunge the records of thousands of Rhode Islanders who have been criminalized for the same activity that is now legal.”

“Without a process for state-initiated automatic expungement, Rhode Islanders with criminal records related to cannabis can be denied employment or housing,” said advocates in a press release, adding that, “In some states fewer than 10% of residents who are eligible successfully petition for relief. States with automatic expungement policies for past marijuana convictions, like California and Illinois, provide relief to many more individuals compared to states without automatic expungement. Automatic expungement is also less costly.”

“We know that criminalizing cannabis has disproportionately working class resident, Black and brown residents in Rhode Island, it has also diverted funding that could be going towards education, towards affordable housing, towards job training programs [and instead sending it] towards policing and incarceration,” said Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler, Progressive Governance Director for the Rhode Island Working Families Party. “At the same time we are legalizing cannabis we also have to make sure that we are addressing the impact that past cannabis offenses have on residents and continue to have.”

Also speaking in favor of automatic expungement and more social equity were Steven Brown from the RI ACLU, Harrison Tuttle from the BLM RI PAC, Alan Krinsky from the Economic Progress Institute, Jordan Goyette of Reclaim RI, and Michael DiLauro from the RI Public Defender’s Office.

The coalition, which includes the Formerly Incarcerated Union of RI, Rhode Island Working Families Party, the Marijuana Policy Project and Reclaim RI, have been strong advocates for a just legalization policy that includes social investment of cannabis tax dollars in communities harmed by the war on drugs, equitable industry regulations that prioritize the participation of people criminalized for cannabis related charges, civil liberties protections such as, employee and parental rights and medical program improvements in regards to cost and access for patients.

You can watch advocates give testimony here:

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