Although National Expungement Week (N.E.W.) has passed, Rosalie Flores feels like she’s just getting started. A passionate organizer for N.E.W., Flores is pleased with the work being done, but understands there’s still a long way to go.
How did you become affiliated with N.E.W.?
I joined N.E.W. – shortly after its inception – as the Colorado state organizer, knowing little of the process or barriers to record-sealing. The idea of organizations and individuals offering reparative justice clinics nationwide sounded like a true grassroots effort, on a large scale. Planning calls to share resources and ideas brought more issues to light for those of us new to this line of work. The needs became more evident and started to move the tide that we are hoping to turn. People now know about expungement and why it’s needed. It starts new conversations about old problems. I’ve found myself an advocate by default, not desire. You can’t unlearn injustice. I’m here, doing what I know I can do to change it, now that I’ve come to understand that which was intended to be kept from me.
Have efforts for cannabis offense expungement been successful?
Speaking only from my experience in Colorado and New Mexico, I’d say the efforts on expungement have been slow, tedious, and tactfully difficult. For the first time ever in 2019, the state of New Mexico passed a very limited expungement bill. New Mexico’s crime rate is one of the highest in the nation and the state itself is considered poor by monetary standards. It seems the difficulty of getting better paying jobs with a record would be obvious. Instead, the lack of opportunities seem to perpetuate crime and justify the continual criminalization of people with a record.
In Colorado, a state where record-sealing eligibility is quite expansive, there are still a number of issues to actually getting the process done. Costs are associated with every step and although lower than most states, still pose a problem. Legislatively, the end-game here is to pick off small pieces at a time, which in turn requires compromises and creates new issues that prevent overall progress. Many states are prioritizing automation of sealing and figuring out how to overcome logistical errors, but from what I’ve seen, until all states have a fair and standard way of automating this process, there’s always going to be the need for clinics which require funding and personnel. We still have a lot of work ahead of us.
How can people get involved to raise awareness of cannabis offense expungement in their area?
I believe more individuals are becoming aware of the obvious injustice and collateral damage a cannabis charge can carry as the legal industry propels forward. However, I don’t think many people (even those that support the work) have an idea of the real barriers in place that impede the process for even progressive states. The conversation about expungement is one small piece of a greater story that has just started being told. We need more education on the process, the costs, the barriers, and the differences between states in order to advance the conversation. Also, when we limit raising awareness solely around cannabis offenses, we seemingly value only those which can now create revenue, while continuing to isolate other drug charges and behaviors that are very rooted in the same problem.
We’ve just begun to educate people about the war on drugs, finding laws that are skewed to target specific people and how we can change them. This isn’t only about expungement, it’s about empowerment on a tangible level for those who were raised to believe they were the problem. The ramifications of educating on this one issue could lead to greater awareness of the criminal justice system overall, and will hopefully get more individuals involved in the judicial process, which many people feel excluded from. In short, local advocates need to do the work. Reach out to the N.E.W. team for help.
What are the challenges facing cannabis offense expungement efforts?
In both Colorado and New Mexico, individuals must petition for themselves to vacate their own conviction. Information about the processes and cost of expungement is not widely spread to the public, as this takes money and effort from the government and hasn’t been a priority. Another challenge is that those most in need of record clearance are the least likely to have the extra money to cover the costs. Securing a high paying job that affords the luxury to save isn’t easy to come by with a record. At this time, non-profit groups, individuals and private attorneys are taking the brunt of the load in helping people. In addition to fees and prosecution, victim rights groups and government agencies also serve as a barrier. But the biggest challenge is with the states that don’t have the financial or logistical support in place to make sure records are actually getting expunged.
Are there stories of people who have had cannabis offenses successfully removed from their records and have then gone on to be healthy, contributing members of society?
I’ve heard of many: the gentleman who could get Section 8 housing with this charge removed and the mom who could get paid more per-hour since she could apply for better jobs. As rewarding as these stories are to hear, we can’t forget that the system is flawed in the first place. The results of a long, drawn-out expensive process is what we see more of after completing a clinic. What needs to be highlighted are the barriers, nuances, and problems existing for people trying to get relief in the first place. That’s the story we are here to tell and the results of organized clinics are but one piece of the puzzle. In my opinion, there’s not enough success stories to justify the system that is currently in place. Only those with help or money can truly experience the relief that comes from expungement. For everyone else, it’s a goal not easily attained.
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