David Grasso, a D.C. councilmember, wants to seal pot criminal records.
A D.C. councilmember’s bill to close the criminal records of District residents who have had marijuana-related offenses, has received widespread support from city activists and political leaders. David Grosso (I-At Large) is the chief sponsor of “The Record Sealing for Decriminalized and Legalized Offenses Amendment Act of 2014,” bill. This legislation would ensure residents with a non-violent misdemeanor or felony possession of marijuana conviction as their only prior criminal history can have their records for those charges sealed by the D.C. police department and the D.C. Superior Court. The bill also prohibits employers from asking an applicant if their records have been expunged or sealed.
Grosso said that the bill is designed to achieve social justice. “Often, people don’t realize that even something as minor as a marijuana possession charge can keep residents from obtaining employment, housing, or scholarship aid for higher education,” he said.
Grosso said that employment concerns compelled him to write the bill. “We have thousands and thousands of District residents who are discouraged from applying for a job that pays minimum wage because they are required to ‘check the box’,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how long ago they were arrested; it doesn’t even matter if the charge was for a non-violent offense.”
The ACLU released a report in 2013 that showed 90.9 percent of people in the District arrested for marijuana possession are Black even though the city’s African-American population is 51 percent. Those numbers led to the passage of a law sponsored by D.C. Councilmember Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and signed by D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray (D) in March that decriminalizes possession of small amounts of marijuana possession. However there are members of the U.S. Congress, particularly U.S. Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), that want to scrap the law, citing the adverse health effects of marijuana.
Grosso’s bill passed the Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety on Sept. 17 and was put on the D.C. Council’s legislative agenda on Sept. 23 for the first reading.
Yango Sawyer, a well-known citizen activist, said he likes most of the aspects of Grosso’s bill, but would expand the category of people who could have their records sealed. Sawyer said the “War on Drugs” campaign supported by the Nixon and Reagan administrations had a devastating effect on Black males in the District, and that all convictions as a result of that campaign and its District counterpart, Operation Clean Sweep, should be sealed.
“In the 1980s, ’90s and 2000s, Operation Clean Sweep was responsible for 30,000-40,000 Black men being locked up,” Sawyer said. “These drug offenses have prevented 98-99 percent of those convicted of obtaining employment. A commission should be set up to see that people arrested for drug offenses during those years get their records sealed.”
Paul Zukerberg, the leader in polls for the new District Attorney General position and a longtime criminal defense attorney, said he is working with the D.C. Public Defender Service and the ACLU to make some additions to Grosso’s bill. Zukerberg ran in an April 23, 2013 special election for an at-large seat on the D.C. Council.
While he lost the race, his candidacy ran on a platform of decriminalizing marijuana. ukerberg’s passion and persistence on the issue generated a conversation among city leaders that eventually led to decriminalization and a possibility of legalization of the drug.
Zukerberg wants Grosso’s bill to make sealing records a lot easier. “We need to do what is done in Maryland,” he said. “In Maryland, all you need to do is to fill out a one-page form. In the city, the process is a lot more complicated and we need to change that.”