In November, Equitas Health signed a letter with the Drug Policy Alliance in support of federal legislation that decriminalizes the possession of personal-use amounts of drugs. As the Community Relations Manager for Harm Reduction in the Department of External Affairs, I urged Equitas Health to join the more than 150 organizations in signing the letter. As a result of my lived and professional experience, I see the need for criminal justice reform.
This proposed legislation reduces some of the harm caused by the “war on drugs.” Because of failed policies, a misdemeanor on your record can limit your career, education, family, community relationships, and more. It can even limit where you live or visit. It also increases the chance for police interactions and abuse—not to mention stigma. Fear and a false sense of moral superiority led to these costly policies that have hurt people around the world.
The letter asks for expungement and/or the sealing of records. That’s a good thing. An expunged or sealed record reduces its harmful impact. In some circumstances, it nullifies the record. That’s why we’re proud to add our signature of support. However, we want the coalition’s request to go even further.
Each state defines dismissal, expungement, and sealing of records differently. In my home state of California, “dismissal” effectively means a person never received a conviction. An “expunged” record means a conviction happened, but it takes special circumstances to open it (such as a to police or state licensure boards). A “sealed” record needs a valid reason to disclose a person’s conviction. A sealed record is a step above any other public record. In short, a conviction still suggests some record exists.
For instance, I received a felony drug conviction in California 20 years ago. Even though the courts dismissed my record, I could not buy a gun or work for the state lottery board if I wanted to. If I tried to buy a gun through the proper channels, the courts can still charge me with a federal felony. So, if my record has been dismissed, why don’t I have these rights?
We’re all born with certain rights. Only the conviction of a crime can take away those rights. Proving a person’s conviction requires documentation, in other words a record. It takes a pardon from the president or governor to fully reinstate your rights. That costs money and often comes at their discretion. As a result, the average person most in need of a pardon is the least likely to get one.
As such, we’re proud to join this coalition, but the request needs to go further. We want to see the pardoning of all charges for personal-use amounts of drugs and the reinstatement of any and all rights lost.