Criminal justice groups in Mississippi say pardoning people for simple marijuana possession could help remove barriers when applying for jobs or securing housing.
Following President Joe Biden’s announcement to pardon all federal offenses of simple marijuana possession, the Mississippi Center for Justice is figuring out how that action could be applied locally, who it could affect and what kind of impact that action could have, said Charity Bruce, deputy director of consumer protection and public benefits.
“Pardons of a nonviolent offense such as possession in the state of Mississippi should be done,” she said.
A pardon is a way to legally forgive someone of a crime and restore civil rights lost during conviction such as voting. However, a pardon doesn’t remove the offense from a person’s criminal record. That would need to be done through expungement.
Earlier this month, when Biden announced he will pardon all federal offenses of simple marijuana possession, he encouraged governors to do the same with state offenses.
A spokesperson for Gov. Tate Reeves did not respond to a request for comment. But at an Oct. 10 event, he called Biden’s action “a political stunt” and “a pretty naive request.”
Biden also directed the secretary of Health and Human Services and the attorney general to review how marijuana is scheduled under the federal Controlled Substances Act. Marijuana currently is Schedule 1, which is a designation for the most dangerous substances such as heroin and LSD, but a higher classification than fentanyl and methamphetamine.
“Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana,” Biden said in a statement. “It’s time that we right these wrongs.”
Black and brown people have been disproportionately arrested, prosecuted and convicted for marijuana possession, he said, noting that a criminal record can put up barriers to employment, housing and educational opportunities.
Six people have been convicted of at least one count of simple marijuana in the federal district courts in Mississippi, according to an analysis from the U.S. Sentencing Commission. This is out of thousands of people, most of whom were convicted in district courts in California and Arizona near the border with Mexico.
As of January, tno one convicted of simple marijuana possession is in federal prison, according to the commission.
People may be eligible for a federal pardon if their simple marijuana possession offense happened on or before Oct. 6, 2022, even if a conviction hasn’t been made by that date, according to the Office of the Pardon Attorney.
During his three years in the governor’s office, Reeves said he hasn’t issued any pardons because it is an authority he takes seriously and would only do if convinced it is necessary.
Reeves said he recognizes the justice system isn’t perfect and that there have been people in state prison convicted of marijuana charges, even as Mississippi has legalized medical marijuana.
About 18 percent, or nearly 3,500 people, who are in state prison have a drug charge as their primary offense, according to the Mississippi Department of Corrections in its 2021 annual report. A breakdown of drug charges is not listed.
“(The system) is certainly not perfect and there are mistakes made, and when there are mistakes there is a (pardon) process through the executive branch to deal with it,” Reeves said.
Through its expungement clinics around the state, the Mississippi Center for Justice has worked with people with drug possession charges and have seen how having a criminal record has impacted them.
Employers and landlords often run background checks on applicants and can see if someone has a criminal record. Even if the offense on a person’s record is nonviolent and the person is a first-time offender, a record can still be a barrier, Bruce said.
“Being in the community and seeing how that affects people in their lives and how one mistake can derail a person or cause a person to be in a cycle of constantly finding ways to pay the fines and fees,” she said. “It can do a lot to a person mentally, physically and financially.”
Most misdemeanors except traffic violations can be expunged. For most felonies, a person can petition to have one criminal conviction removed from their criminal record five years after completing all terms and conditions of release.
Beyond pardons and expungement, Bruce said other states are introducing efforts that could help people who have a criminal record. Some states are introducing legislation to seal a person’s record, which could give some the opportunity to apply for jobs and housing and not have their record be the first thing the person reading their application sees.
“It can help the person get a foot in the door before they are placed in the box,” she said.