The Washington State House Public Safety Committee (WA House PS) considers issues relating to law enforcement agencies, crime prevention, criminal penalties and sentencing, impaired driving, registration and civil commitment of sex offenders, and adult correctional programs and institutions.
Lawmakers heard HB 1500 which would allow for vacation of misdemeanor cannabis possession convictions.
Here are some observations from the February 5th Washington State House Public Safety Committee (WA House PS) Committee Meeting including a public hearing for HB 1500, “Concerning misdemeanor marijuana offense convictions.”
My top 3 takeaways:
- The Office of Program Research briefed members on HB 1500 and lawmakers shared their perspectives on the bill (audio – 3m, video).
- From the House Bill Analysis:
- Requires a court to vacate a misdemeanor marijuana possession conviction upon request if the applicant was age 21 or older at the time of the offense.
- Committee Chair Roger Goodman confirmed that individuals would need to apply for vacation of convictions under the bill, and contrasted automatic removal under a recently-passed California law (audio – 1m, video). Later, Goodman said automatic removal may be impossible in Washington State due to the independence of the judiciary established by the State Constitution.
- Representative Joe Fitzgibbon, the bill’s sponsor, explained why he had supported the effort for several years (audio – 4m, video).
- Fitzgibbon was inspired after seeing King and Pierce County prosecutors dismiss pending cannabis misdemeanor cases when I-502 was passed in 2012 and “that got [him] thinking about the people who have this charge on their records.”
- The Washington State Patrol (WSP) told Fitzgibbon there were 226,000 misdemeanor cannabis possession convictions in their records that could be vacated, though some could be multiple possession convictions on a single record.
- Fitzgibbon talked about the barriers to housing and employment which convictions created and called the bill “logical and compassionate.”
- He acknowledged pardon efforts by Governor Jay Inslee and the City of Seattle motion but called them “small slices” and emphasized HB 1500 would go “much further.”
- Goodman asked if the legislation left non-cannabis misdemeanors on an individual’s record; Fitzgibbon said it did.
- Senator Joe Nguyen, sponsor of HB 1500’s companion bill in the Senate SB 5605, said that convictions disproportionately impact communities of color, and the bills would help rectify past wrongs, reduce recidivism, and help people feel “respected and whole” (audio – 4m, video).
- Representative Sherry Appleton said convictions had created an “underclass” of citizens who may not be able to serve in the military, receive scholarships, or rent homes. She said WSP maintained a separate list of previous convictions, including vacated ones, that could be shared with landlords and wondered what could be done to address that list. Nguyen did not address Appleton’s specific query but referenced other legislation he was involved in such as “housing vouchers for folks who are impacted by our justice system” and encouraged the committee to address impacted communities through other bills.
- From the House Bill Analysis:
- Most of those testifying supported vacating misdemeanor cannabis possession convictions.
- Lara Kaminsky, Executive Director of The Cannabis Alliance, explained vacation of misdemeanor cannabis convictions was the trade association’s #2 legislative priority as decided by its members. She said Alliance members felt it was “odd to be able to [work in the cannabis industry] while large numbers of folks are still suffering with past cannabis [misdemeanor] convictions.” She called the state’s legalization “incomplete while people are still suffering.” She concluded by listing states clearing records in harmony with legalization of cannabis and urged passage to help “heal our communities” (audio – 2m, video).
- Oliver Standard, a lifelong Washington resident, spoke in support and shared his experiences since receiving a cannabis conviction nearly 20 years ago. Saying most of his life he’d had a conviction on his record, he talked about the “stigma and challenges” it brought in areas like employment and housing: “I assure you all this is not the conversation you want to have with your child’s school administrator when you’re applying to take your child on a field trip.” He noted the damage to lifetime earning potential which convictions caused. He concurred with Goodman’s earlier point on the benefits of automatic removal and argued a simple process would benefit disadvantaged communities (audio – 5m, video).
- Samantha Grad, the Political and Legislative Organizer for UFCW 21, expressed “strong support” and argued that while many enjoy the opportunities of legalization, “for many more it is a painful reminder that they are still dealing with the negative impacts of a cannabis misdemeanor conviction.” She described barriers invoked by convictions including the “ability to find a place to live, apply for employment, get a car payment, qualify for student loans.” Grad emphasized, “Cannabis prohibition was a disaster for people working in these underground jobs and it disproportionately impacted people of color” (audio – 2m, video).
- Arthur West, a concerned citizen, called HB 1500 “an incredibly important bill” before mentioning the escalating history of the drug war. He said Governor Inslee’s pardon program was “good” but “applies to about 13% of the convictions.” West encouraged making the process as easy as possible, potentially by dedicating some cannabis revenue to employ staff who could assist citizens with vacating or pardoning convictions. He also said the legislature should consider vacating some cannabis felonies which “are much worse on your record.” He finished by acknowledging the stigma of convictions and their contribution to increasing homelessness (audio – 3m, video).
- Goodman said nine people signed in without wanting to testify, all in support of the bill.
- James McMahan, Policy Director for the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC), provided the lone dissenting view and responded to questions from the committee (audio – 7m, video).
- McMahan spoke against leniency as law enforcement considered it “relevant and influential” that cannabis was illegal when the convictions occurred, and “many” misdemeanor convictions for cannabis possession were pled down from charges like intent to deliver. McMahan told lawmakers existing pardon, expungement, and vacating systems were adequate for those who would be helped by the bill.
- Goodman asked staff if a governor’s pardon removed the charge from an individual’s record. Staff confirmed it did, but were unsure if a person could then say they had never been convicted of an offense.
- Assistant Ranking Minority Member Robert Sutherland asked if a person’s full criminal record was reviewed during requests to clear convictions. McMahan was unsure, saying it was an “open question.” Goodman added that qualified people who applied for vacating under the bill would get it without consideration of other circumstances.
- Asked by Goodman if the “prejudicial effect” of a criminal record made it compelling to assist people in moving on, McMahan replied that current law reflected the legislature’s past “deliberate conversations and decisions about what are the circumstances surrounding” the removal of convictions. Goodman pointed to having to wait years before being able to apply and limits on how many misdemeanor convictions can be vacated as barriers to the current process. “Those are not unreasonable restrictions in our view,” replied McMahan.