Vacating Misdemeanor Pot Convictions: Seattle’s Necessary But Insufficient Step Toward Restorative Justice Says Mayor Durkan

By Jevan Hutson, first-year student at the University of Washington School of Law.

Image used under the Creative Commons Zero License

Following similar announcements in San Francisco and San Diego, Seattle became the latest major U.S. city to vacate past pot convictions. Earlier this month, the city of Seattle moved to vacate all misdemeanor pot possession convictions that were prosecuted before the legalization of recreational marijuana in 2012.

Highlighting a report from the Drug Policy Alliance, Mayor Durkan’s office said  “[m]arijuana possession arrests in Washington rose sharply . . . from 4,000 in 1986 to 11,000 in 2010, totaling 240,000 arrests . . .” and that “[i]n Washington State, African Americans were arrested at 2.9 times the rate of whites. Latinos and Native Americans were arrested at 1.6 times the rate of whites.”

As a step toward redressing the disparate impact of the war on drugs on communities of color, Mayor Jenny Durkan and City Attorney Pete Holmes estimate that between 500 and 600 criminal convictions will be erased from court records. The cases were prosecuted between 1997 and 2009, which represents the period when Seattle’s municipal court had authority to prosecute misdemeanor pot cases. Before 1997, misdemeanor marijuana prosecutions were handled in county court, where city officials have no jurisdiction.

Unlike the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, which will be reviewing, recalling, and resentencing upwards of  4,940 felony marijuana convictions dating back 43 years, the Seattle City Attorney’s Office does not oversee felony marijuana convictions. In Seattle, felony marijuana convictions are handled by King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg. Despite being sympathetic to the city’s initiative, Satterberg says his office does not have the resources to vacate or reduce all past convictions:

“If a case is more than three years old, we have to go to the warehouse where we hold our old files, pull them out, and figure out if the felony was a $10 sale or a 1,000-plant grow house,” Satterberg said. “If the county wanted to make this a priority and devote some resources to it, it could be done, but I don’t want to do it at the expense of the mainline criminal cases that are coming in every day.”

Despite being at the forefront of marijuana legalization, Seattle’s latest efforts follow the lead of cities like San Francisco, San Diego, and Oakland. Although Seattle’s move to vacate misdemeanor pot possession convictions is an important and necessary step forward, Mayor Durkan highlighted how it is alone insufficient to redress the historical injustices of the war on drugs on vulnerable and minority communities:

“Addressing decades of unjust convictions – and particularly the damage wrought on communities of color – won’t happen overnight. We must provide more effective alternatives to prosecution and incarceration through drug and mental health courts, restoring rights and supporting re-entry.”

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