Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced Friday he will offer pardons to people convicted of minor marijuana possession between 1998 and 2012. But those offenders may be better off under other alternatives available to clear their names.
Someone pardoned under Inslee’s plan, for example, would still have to answer “yes” to the question “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” on housing and other forms, although they would be able to clarify they have been pardoned. A pardon does not expunge a crime from someone’s record.
By contrast, getting a conviction “vacated” wipes away a sentence and can set aside a guilty verdict.
But vacating a sentence comes with certain requirements that a pardon doesn’t, and a spokesman for the governor’s office said Inslee’s pardon plan can be easier to access.
“A pardon is going to have less impact than if one would have vacated a conviction,” Governor’s office Deputy General Counsel Tip Wonhoff said by email Tuesday.
However, pursuing Inslee’s offer of clemency is much easier, he said. Applicants fill out a simple web form without the assistance of a lawyer and with no need to go to a courthouse.
“We recognize the limits of a pardon, but it is better than nothing,” Wonhoff said.
By contrast, to get a conviction expunged requires filing paperwork with the court. In Cowlitz County, this means paying a $20 fee and waiting one or two weeks for a judge to consider the request, Cowlitz Court Administrator Dee Wirkkala said. She added that the process doesn’t require attending any hearings.
Roughly 3,500 people in Washington would be eligible for Inslee’s pardon, according to the Governor’s office. Officials here do not know how many offenders could be eligible for Inslee’s clemency program. However, assuming equal conviction rates across the state, about 51 people in Cowlitz County may be eligible.
Inslee’s initiative aims to ease some of the social and financial burdens imposed by a marijuana conviction, because cannabis was legalized more than six years ago. Reporting those convictions can make it more difficult to find housing, education or employment, his office said.
“This is a small step, but one that moves us in the direction of correcting injustices that disproportionately affected communities of color,” according to the governor’s website. “A successful pardon of a marijuana possession conviction can assist with barriers to housing, employment and education.”
Which option is better — pardon or vacation — depends on the conviction. A pardon can be granted even if one hasn’t paid off all his fines for a sentence or if he’s currently under a civil restraining order, unlike a motion to vacate.
However, “In my mind it’s much easier, if you qualify, to vacate your conviction,” Cowlitz County Prosecutor Ryan Jurvakainen said Tuesday. “(It’s) easier and more time efficient to go to the court of your conviction and ask for a vacation if you’ve paid all your dues and done everything necessary.”
Inslee’s pardons come with restrictions: The conviction must be for misdemeanor adult marijuana possession and must be the person’s only conviction (meaning those convicted of multiple possession charges would be ineligible). And it must have occurred between between Jan. 1, 1998, and Dec. 5, 2012 (from when medicinal cannabis was legalized to when it was legalized recreationally).
However, that pardoned person “would still have to identify a conviction,” Jurvakainen said. “In order to say, ‘I wasn’t convicted of a crime,’ you still have to go to the court, which somebody can already do, regardless of the governor’s initiative.”
The marijuana pardon and vacating processes can both only be used once, for a single conviction, and will remove the conviction from public crime listings. Neither can be sought if the applicant has any pending criminal charges. And the requests are generally guaranteed as long as all conditions are met, although the decision is up to the governor or a judge.
While “there is no timeline” for marijuana convictions pardoned through the governor’s office, Wonhoff said he anticipates the requests being processed in a matter of “weeks versus months.”
The form to apply for a pardon request from Gov. Inslee can be found at: https://www.governor.wa.gov/marijuanajustice.
The form to apply to vacate a sentence in the Cowlitz district court can be found at: http://www.co.cowlitz.wa.us/index.aspx?NID=876.