Jamarhl Crawford still lives in the Roxbury neighborhood where, years ago, he often hung out on street corners with friends and frequently encountered police.
“As a kid in the 80’s, myself and many others, we probably were the first wave of this,” recalled Crawford. “Higher police presence and, oftentimes, stop and frisk began with the whole, ‘What do you have on you? Are you smoking a blunt?’”
He was caught — more than once — doing something that’s now legal: possessing marijuana. Even though many of those early charges have been sealed, employers can’t see the charges, but they can see he has a record.
“This stuff doesn’t disappear, it’s still there. So if I was trying to apply for a job at a bank or a government agency, all this stuff they still will see,” said Crawford, who believes early possession charges derailed him from job opportunities. “What happened to me was I became perpetually unemployed.”
He’s become a community activist and a vocal proponent for a part of the criminal justice reform law the Massachusetts legislature passed last year that — for the first time — allows Massachusetts residents to have minor convictions expunged from their record.
“This is gone, like press the button never happened,” said Michael Morrissey, district attorney for Norfolk County.
Expungement is offered in several other states, but it’s new in Massachusetts. Morrissey thinks the criminal justice system needs to be proactive in letting the public know it’s available. He has written to colleagues, and he convened a meeting in December that brought together judges, attorneys, probation officers and other court employees.
“You may run into a victim or a witness, someone in the courts,” said Morrissey. “You may recognize they may have a minor indiscretion on their record and realize that, ‘Hey, you can get that taken care of.’”
Offenses eligible for expungement are narrow and include possessing less than two ounces of marijuana, knowingly being present where heroin is kept and possessing a hypodermic needle.
“It’s not radical. it’s relatively simple — not getting rid of violent crimes, crimes against family members, OUI’s, none of that,” said Morrissey.
Findings from the American Civil Liberties Union suggest that the ability to wipe away a minor marijuana conviction may be especially relevant among African Americans, because although marijuana use is roughly equal among blacks and whites, black people are nearly four times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession.
"I’m glad people are looking into legal ramifications now for all these people that got into trouble for a thing that has now been decriminalized,” said Crawford. “How do we level that out?”
Morrissey says he has no idea how many people might ultimately benefit from the new expungement law. So far, about 40 people have applied to have their records expunged in Norfolk County. The decision will ultimately be up to a judge.