I was fairly impressed with how Prez Biden decided to craft and announce his marijuana possession pardons last week (basics here and here). Blanket pardons are rare, especially in modern times, but they have a rich American history (see the great list in Charles Shanor & Marc Miller, Pardon Us: Systematic Presidential Pardons, 13 Federal Sentencing Reporter 139, 140 (2001)). And to couple these pardons with an expedited review of marijuana’s Schedule I status, which is overdue, could have a huge future impact on federal marijuana policy.
It also struck me as notable and important that Prez Biden further called upon state Governors to follow his pardoning lead, and he did so right after he referenced the enduring consequences of even low-level marijuana convictions in this official statement: “There are thousands of people who have prior Federal convictions for marijuana possession, who may be denied employment, housing, or educational opportunities as a result. My action will help relieve the collateral consequences arising from these convictions.” Of course, even the lowest-level state marijuana convictions also can carry an array of collateral consequences, which I discussed a bit in my (now very dated) 2018 article “Leveraging Marijuana Reform to Enhance Expungement Practices.”
But, in some conversations about record relief at the state level, it dawned on me that Prez Biden’s work also was a missed opportunity to give Congress some prodding along with state Governors and his own agencies. Specifically, one reason some state Governors might not feel a huge need to pardon marijuana possession offenders is the fact that most every state has some legislative/court mechanism to seal or expunge low-level convictions, and many of these mechanisms have been expanded in recent years. But, at the federal level, there are no general record relief laws in place (though a number of bills have been proposed to remedy this legal gap). As the folks at the Collateral Consequences Resource Center have explained in recent recommendations to Congress:
Since 2013, most states have either expanded record relief laws enacted in the 1970’s or enacted relief for the first time. States have tailored eligibility and procedures to the specific type of record, and more than a dozen have authorized automatic relief for certain records. Record remedies are now authorized in almost every state and apply to many types of criminal records. The popularity of court-managed diversion is growing, and many states also offer judicial or administrative certificates to restore lost rights.
Yet Congress has thus far failed to act, leaving those with federal convictions without remedy short of a presidential pardon, and those with federal non-conviction records without any remedy at all. In addition, many areas of federal law fail to recognize or give effect to state relief.
Prez Biden is right to be deeply concerned about the collateral consequences arising from even the lowest-level drug convictions, but he should know that federal clemency efforts are not the only or even the best way to address these concerns. Rather, Congress needs to step up and start moving forward with the many bills proposing some form of federal record relied (the Clean Slate Act and the Fresh Start Act are some notable bills in this space, but there are a lot more possibilities). And Prez Biden’s announcement of his marijuana possession pardons would have been an especially timely opportunity for him to urge Congress to get a bill to his desk on this front.
Arguably this is a nit-pick, complaining about the federal record relief dog that did not bark when Prez Biden made his pardon announcement. But that announcement has received a lot of attention from the press and others, and yet I do not think I have seen any new discussion of the absence of any general federal record relief mechanism. This ugly gap in federal law merits a lot more attention, and so I cannot help but lament this missed opportunity.
Prior related posts: