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Expungement programs help many St. Louisans seal certain marijuana records

Cannabis flower grows at a recreational grow facility in Illinois. The state awarded new recreational marijuana business licenses on July 29, the first time since the state started legal sales.
Eric Schmid
St. Louis Public Radio
A cannabis flower grows at a recreational grow facility in Illinois in December 2019. Today marks the first day Missourians can recreationally consume marijuana after the passing of Amendment 3 last month.

For nearly four decades, Cynthia Cross, 60, worked menial jobs, lived in unsafe neighborhoods and was unable to obtain a nursing license to advance in her career as a part-time certified nursing assistant because she had a criminal record.

In 1983, police raided her north St. Louis apartment looking for drugs. Police found marijuana in her basement and arrested Cross, then 21. Prosecutors later charged her with two felony counts of marijuana possession. Cross said the drugs were not hers, and she still maintains her innocence.

When voters approved Amendment 3 in November, they made it possible for Missourians to have nonviolent marijuana convictions expunged from their criminal records. It takes effect today.

Legal aid lawyers in Missouri are helping people expedite the expungement process. In August, Cross got her decades-old record cleared through ArchCity Defenders’ RESTART expungement program. The new amendment can help people avoid years of hardship, she said.

“I look back over all of the years, I could have been way advanced in my career, my kids could have had better, I could have had better housing,” said Cross, who is an afterschool program cook. “I could have done a whole lot better.”

The amendment legalizes recreational cannabis for people over 21. It also requires the courts to automatically expunge records of people convicted of certain marijuana charges. All misdemeanor-related charges must be expunged by June 8, 2023, and eligible felony marijuana-related convictions must be cleared by Dec. 8, 2023. Missourians who want to expunge their records quickly are allowed to petition the courts to seal their records, which can be a costly process.

Jon Gitchoff
Special to St. Louis Public Radio
From left, Tanisha Patterson, Ryan Quinones and Chris LeGrand celebrate the passage of Amendment 3 on Nov. 8 during a watch party at the Crown Room in downtown St. Louis. Amendment 3 legalizes recreational marijuana in Missouri for individuals over age 21 and expunges nonviolent marijuana-related conviction records, excluding sales to minors and driving under the influence.

Legal aid services, including ArchCity Defenders, a St. Louis civil rights law firm, is trying to eliminate costly barriers by providing free services. Some cases can cost thousands to expunge.

Expunging records can help people obtain a better quality of life, said Brittany Shaw, an ArchCity Defenders attorney who coordinates the program.

“A lot of the benefits include better housing [and] stable employment,” Shaw said. “As people get up and age, they might need retirement benefits or other types of senior benefits that they might be prevented from having because of the record.”

So far, Shaw and her team have successfully expunged two cases and are working through about 10 others. She said many of her clients are Black women with records from two decades ago or beyond and have limited incomes.

Cross wishes voters had passed the amendment decades ago. Just recently, she obtained a limited liability company.

“I would not have been able to get one if it was not for the expungement,” she said.

Shaw said the expungement process can be difficult, because the courts aren’t making it easy for her to clear those records.

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ArchCity Defenders
Brittany Shaw, an ArchCity Defenders attorney and the Restart expungement program coordinator, said Amendment 3 can help thousands of people with misdemeanor and felony conviction records have a better quality of life. Shaw also trains volunteer lawyers through the Restart program to help more clients with expungement cases.

The amendment language can be confusing, which sometimes creates a longer process for people who need to immediately get a higher-paying job or better housing, Shaw said.

“I like seeing people be free without them having to struggle so hard to get to a place where they are confident and where they are able to access the quality of life that they've been seeking for themselves and their family,” she said.

After the amendment passed last month, St. Louis and St. Louis County circuit courts began determining what cases include marijuana convictions that could be expunged.

St. Louis circuit courts are working on a plan, court spokesman Joel Currier said. In St. Louis County, court officials suggest people who are currently incarcerated for specific marijuana convictions to petition the courts to vacate the sentence before the record is expunged.

For people who are currently on probation or parole for certain cannabis-related violations should see their sentences automatically vacated and later expunged by the courts.

Shaw said clearing conviction records helps people regain confidence.

“My goal is just to liberate as many people from oppression as possible without them having to spin the arm and both legs on it,” she said.

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.

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