The proposed HOPE Act would equalize the field for those with nonviolent cannabis charges on their records. Photo via VladimirKoval.
The Harnessing Opportunities by Pursuing Expungement (HOPE) Act aims to expunge cannabis convictions from millions of Americans’ records. This would reopen opportunities for essentials like employment, housing, loans and more.
Representatives David Joyce, R-OH, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY, are spearheading the bipartisan legislation. Overall, the bill aims to give state and local governments grants to enact expungements, create relief processes and promote legal clinics to clear citizens’ records.
The two representatives are working together to allow past offenders to rejoin the workforce, housing markets, educational outlets and more.
What is Expungement?
Having a criminal record can affect one ability to attain employment, housing, loans, education or licensing opportunities.
“Economists estimate that the cost of barring these individuals from the workforce is roughly $78 to $87 billion in lost gross domestic product annually,” the Center for American Progress (CAP) reports
However, when officials expunge a conviction, this allows people to lead more normal and free lives.
Expungement, according to FindLaw — an online legal resource — is a process in which officials remove a criminal conviction from an individual’s record.
In a press release from Ocasio-Cortez’s office, Steven Hawkins, CEO Of the U.S .Cannabis Council said, “the HOPE Act can help provide desperately needed relief to millions of Americans by facilitating state and local expungement of nonviolent cannabis offenses.”
In addition to clearing records, the HOPE Act also proposes research into the effect of cannabis convictions.
Research shows that drug charges disproportionately impact people of color. Expungement provides more opportunities, as officials are four times more likely to arrest Black people for cannabis, PBS NewsHour reports.
“The bill would also require the Attorney General to conduct a study on the impact of cannabis offenses on an individual’s criminal record, including impacts related to housing, employment, recidivism, and how such effects differ based on demographics,” according to Ocasio-Cortez’s press release. “The study must also include a report on the costs incurred by states for incarcerating an individual convicted of a cannabis offense.”
Costs to States
The Act offers grants to states – $20 million total over the course of ten years. This would go towards technology for legal relief, automated processing of expungement, legal clinics, notification systems, sealing records and platforms to publish information around the expungement process.
The legislation focuses on state-level expungement because state and local law enforcement handles the overwhelming majority of cannabis-related charges. As Ocasio-Cortez’s office explains, “in 2019, the federal government was only involved in a fraction of the 545,000 cannabis offenses charged in the United States. That year, the FBI charged only 5,350 individuals with a top-line charge for any drug offense, not just cannabis.”
However, the cost to expunge records is high for state departments, which are oftentimes underfunded, The Marshall Project reports.
As part of the bill, the Department of Justice would award states millions of dollars annually as part of the State Expungement Opportunity Grant Program, reports Marijuana Moment. State officials can use these funds to identify records to expunge, and help cover administrative fees.
The bill’s sponsors, Joyce and Ocasio-Cortez believe the funds should go towards large-scale expungement, which would automatically clear records, in order to speed up the process and assist the millions of Americans that cannabis charges impact. Because expungement typically happens at the state level, the grants would offer massive relief and speed up processing.
Normal expungement costs include court and attorney fees, fees to check eligibility and costs to settle debts. Typically, only misdemeanors can be expunged, but it depends on the state. If trying to get a felony expunged, clients must pay additional attorney fees, according to Law Info.
Expunging Records in States Where Cannabis is Legal
Because several states have legalized cannabis, many find it unfair that past offenders suffer while others participate in the industry.
As a result, many states have seen initiatives by organizations to expunge records for citizens. In Illinois, for example, there’s New Leaf. New Leaf is “ a state-funded initiative made up of 20 non-profit organizations throughout Illinois who provide free legal representation or legal information to people who want their cannabis convictions off their record,” their website explains.
According to WTTW, there are 34,000 Illinoisans – a state where cannabis is legal – with cannabis charges still on their record. With the help of New Leaf, those with minor offenses receive immediate expungement.
In California, state officials promised to expunge certain cannabis convictions from peoples’ records. But, expungement in the courts is taking longer than expected. In 2018, the California government automated the expungement process through Assembly Bill 1793, according to The LA Times. However, the publication reports that tens of thousands of people are still waiting for officials to clear their records. While funding doesn’t seem to be a concern, issues arise around staffing and technology.
On the federal level, President Joe Biden supports the bill. He generally favors decriminalization and believes nobody should be in jail over cannabis charges, according to Marijuana Moment.
Legislators introduced the bill in 2021 and will decide its future in upcoming sessions. It is currently awaiting a vote in the House of Representative; legislators referred it to the House Judiciary Committee. Ocasio-Cortez and Joyce’s plan for expungement would go into effect in 2023 if passed, allotting the grants of $2 million per year for 10 years, according to Ocasio-Cortez’s press release.