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What Happened To Cincinnati's Plan To Expunge Marijuana Offenses?

Cincinnati officials voted two years ago to expunge minor marijuana offenses, but so far, no cases seem to have been sealed due to the ordinance.

Cincinnati officials voted two years ago to expunge minor, nonviolent marijuana offenses, but so far, none of the nearly 14,000 cases that could be eligible seem to have been sealed due to the ordinance.

"As far as I know, they still haven't done anything," said Chris Jones, director of the Appellate Division for the Hamilton County Public Defenders. "I haven't seen any movement."

She says expungement laws expanded more than 10 years ago, but many people still don't know their old marijuana tickets are eligible to be sealed. That's part of the reason the ordinance was initially proposed.

It was passed by council in September 2019 and called on city officials to allocate money for a full-time position so people could be identified and notified of their expungement eligibility . .Requirements for expungement include having less than 100 grams of marijuana and being involved in a nonviolent offense.

"I just want them to get this program started, I would love it, and if they can't do it, just identify the people and send them to us," Jones said.

She runs the Fresh Start Expungement Clinic, which provides free legal advice for people seeking to seal their records. Clinics were stopped in 2020 because of COVID-19 risks and are expected to resume in September.

What Does Expungement Mean Exactly?

Nicholas Klingensmith is a criminal defense attorney who handles a few dozen expungement cases a year. He says expungement gives people the chance to move on after being convicted of a crime.

"So basically, in Ohio, when we say 'expungement,' what we really mean is we're actually sealing your record. And when your record is sealed — on job applications and anywhere else that asks if you have a criminal conviction or if you've been charged with something — you can legally say no, after your records are sealed," he said. "So a big benefit is that you can move on from it."

Not all crimes are eligible for expungement, though. Crimes involving children, sex crimes and first and second degree felonies are never eligible for expungement. But the support behind expungement of smaller crimes is intended to give people the chance to have better employment, education and housing opportunities, he said.

What's The Hold Up?

The City Manager's Office was supposed to begin coordinating the effort in November 2019, though it cannot directly expunge records.

Officials from the office declined to be interviewed, but said in a statement, "City administration and the Solicitor's Office have worked with various partners to support expungements of qualifying offenses … While this work was delayed during the pandemic and closure of courts, we have since resumed work with our partners to identify eligible cases and individuals, and process improvements."

Kelly Carr, assistant to the city manager, says the Hamilton County Clerk's Office has begun looking for ways to take care of a large number of expungements at once. She says the city is working with the clerk's office and has paired with other organizations to help streamline the process, including the Hamilton County Public Defender's Office, and the Ohio Justice and Policy Center.

Sean Vicente is director of the Municipal Division at the Hamilton County Public Defender's Office. He says, however, the office is not partnering with the city on the efforts.

"The city did reach out to us twice in 2020. And as I said before, at the time, the city police department is still arresting folks for marijuana possession," he said. "And so we told the city that we would not — definitively not — partner with them, because they were not acting in good faith. They were, one, still arresting folks for marijuana; and two, sometimes opposing those marijuana expungements — those very expungements — in court on a daily basis."

He says some prosecutors used issues, like overdue traffic tickets, as a reason not to grant marijuana expungement requests. But that practice started to slow and seemed to stop at the beginning of the year.

CPD and city officials say people are only supposed to be given warnings for possessing less than 100 grams of marijuana. A records request for the alleged warnings was submitted by WVXU about a month ago and has not been fulfilled.

But Vicente says even marijuana warnings can be problematic, especially for Black people.

"My guess is that the police department wanted to keep using the fact that marijuana is still an arrestable offense in the state of Ohio to harass certain people — I'll say brown and Black people — in certain neighborhoods and to continue to, basically, justify pretextual stops," he said. "They use that to then search someone's car, they use that to pump somebody for information. Those sort of tactics eventually led us to what happened last summer across the entire nation."

WVXU has repeatedly reached out to the Cincinnati Police Department for a comment about marijuana warnings and possible other offenses since July 6. But officials did not provide an interview or statement by press time.

The Ohio Justice and Policy Center says they've had "start and stop" conversations with the city about a possible partnership, but there have been no formal plans made to work with the office on expungements.

The only organization Carr listed that is currently assisting the city with expungement efforts is the Hamilton County Clerk's Office.

According to Chief of Compliance Liza Brackman, city officials had some conversations about launching the program, but identifying cases that could qualify for expungement didn't start until mid-March 2021. However, officials are still trying to parse out how to handle a large number of cases at once.

One issue they're facing is how to determine if someone is guilty of additional disqualifying crimes and if they still owe fees associated with their charge

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