Ten years after Washington state legalized cannabis, King County Executive Dow Constantine is stepping up the County’s efforts to help people with weed-related convictions clear those marks from their criminal record. As part of his proposed $15.8 billion budget for the next two years, he wants to spend $2 million in cannabis tax revenue on beefing up the County’s outreach program that proactively contacts people with cannabis-related convictions to help them expunge those records and also wipe any outstanding court fines and fees.
By funding outreach efforts from “credible messengers” such as African Community Housing and Development, Chief Seattle Club, Somali Community Services of Seattle, Urban League, and the Freedom Project, the County says it has already helped 170 people clear their records in the first six months of 2022. If the King County Council approves the additional funding, County officials believe the program could reach every person with an eligible conviction by the end of 2024.
This coordinated outreach from the County is the latest in a series of attempts by local and state governments to redress the harm caused by the country’s War on Drugs.
In 2018, former Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes worked with Seattle Municipal Court judges to vacate between 500 and 600 misdemeanor convictions for cannabis possession dating back to 1997. Then in 2019, the State Legislature passed a law that requires judges to automatically vacate misdemeanor cannabis convictions. That law, however, still put the onus on individuals to figure out where they were sentenced and then navigate the application process themselves.
But vacating a conviction doesn’t solve all the problems associated with having a criminal record. Without expunging those records and wiping those outstanding fees, the conviction can still show up in criminal background checks, making it harder for people to get jobs, rent apartments, or apply to colleges.
County officials running the outreach program say they understand those complexities, and they designed the current effort to account for them by empowering the nonprofits to help people sign up for housing assistance or job training while they work to get their convictions expunged.
So far, the data the nonprofits gave the County show the program reaching the people most disproportionately affected by the War on Drugs. Through June of this year, 46% of the 170 people who got help through the program were Native American and 45% identified as Black.
The King County program also differs from prior efforts to repair the damage prohibition caused by providing funding to help people clear outstanding court fees and fines. The 12% interest the courts charge on these debts, which are called “legal financial obligations,” can keep people trapped in a debt cycle long after they finish serving their sentences.
Andy Ward, who manages this work for Chief Seattle Club, said in a phone interview that County funding allowed his organization to help more than one hundred people. In one case, his organization worked with the Northwest Justice Project to bring down one person’s debt from $100,000 to just $11,000. With the money from the County, Chief Seattle Club paid that reduced amount so the person no longer owed the legal system a dime.
Ward stressed that the extraordinary sum in that case resulted from years of compounding interest. Many people he’s helped owed tens of thousands of dollars on court fees that started out as relatively small debts, he said. But after years of having difficulty finding employment due to their criminal records, people unable to keep up with payments can end up with debts so large they never thought they could ever pay them off.
Getting this kind of relief can’t make up for lost years in prison for possession of a drug that should never have been illegal in the first place, but Ward said the people who have benefited from the program have become evangelists for the work. They continually refer more and more people to him to get help, creating so much demand that Ward said he’s hiring additional staff to handle the volume of requests for assistance.
In a statement, King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay expressed support for the program, saying the government should take responsibility for fixing the harm it caused with the War on Drugs. “Justice is more than admitting a wrong,” he said. “[I]t’s proactively working to fix the wrong.”
If the rest of the King County Council shares Zahilay’s enthusiasm for the program and approves the Executive’s request for additional funding, Chief Seattle Club and the County’s other nonprofit partners will have two more years of support to keep chipping away at the collateral damage remaining from the War on Drugs.