Spokane Retroactively Vacates Marijuana Convictions


Will State of Washington Follow Suit?


Prison sentencing for marijuana charges could be one of the largest cursory areas that marijuana legalization has affected. In an attempt to even out what now seem like uneven punishments, the city of Spokane, Washington, has recently passed an ordinance to retroactively allow those with marijuana convictions to vacate them.

In a 6-0 vote on Nov. 9, 2015, the Spokane City Council decided residents that have been convicted of a misdemeanor-level marijuana offense prior to July 2014 can vacate their convictions. In order to do this, the convicted person will have to apply for consideration to the Spokane Municipal Court. For those with charges that are felony level, the charges will have to be reviewed at the district court.

The goal of measures such as these are simple: they are an attempt to make life a little more livable for those with minor marijuana-related offenses. Those with even the most banal infractions can be denied employment, loans or financial aid; and at worst, offenders can be given life sentences.

One example of this is Missourian Jeff Mizanskey, who was recently granted parole after serving 23 years of a life sentence for a non-violent marijuana-related crime.

This type of retroactive law is not uncommon anymore, especially in states where marijuana has been legalized. In Spokane, this new measure will apply to 1,817 citizens that were convicted between 1997 and 2012.

The city decided to take action because the state has yet to pass a similar law. As a state, Washington has had trouble getting such laws out of committee, and Spokane modeled its measure after House Bill 1041, a state proposal that has stalled.

HB 1041 has been reintroduced at three special sessions in 2015, but it has not moved past being “retained at present status.”

Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon is a sponsor of the bill, and he has asserted that the bill is important because it would have an impact on 3,000 to 4,000 people in the state, improving their ability to apply for jobs or to get mortgages.

Another advocate for the bill, public defender Alex Frix, spoke on the bill’s behalf at a House Public Safety committee meeting in Jan. 16, 2015. He stressed, “It is patently unfair to continue to punish people with the stain of a conviction for possessing a now legal substance.”

The bill, if ever passed, would only apply to those over 21 at the time of conviction, with a small amount of marijuana and with no other convictions.

Colorado, on the other hand, has made progress in this area. Beginning in 2013, Colorado passed Senate Bill 250. Among other things, this bill allows for certain felonies to be downgraded to misdemeanor status.

As a country though, there seems to be a general agreement that drug offenses need to be reduced. This is evidenced by the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, an act that lowers the mandatory minimums for certain drug offenses while increasing penalties for crimes like domestic violence. After a successful compromise by sponsors, it has been moved to the senate floor.

A move by Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and David Perdue, R-Ga., to remove the bill’s retroactive nature was struck down, but there are assurances that this will not be a catchall bill. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, noted the importance of the language, requiring case-by-case analysis regarding retroactive application.

It is important to keep these issues in mind, especially as election season comes and goes. What is important and most fair: serving out a punishment that was debatably fitting at the time of the crime, or recognizing a shift in policy and adapting the system to the country’s climate?

Josh Browning is a writer and editor based in Washington and has a background working in the technology, education and creative writing fields. He earned his MA from Western Washington University and his BSS from Ohio University.

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