End lifelong punishment for what’s no longer a crime

I just sent this letter to Washington’s new[ish] Governor, and I’d like to encourage you to do similar:

Dear Governor Inslee,

In the same election that brought you to power the people of Washington chose, by a significant margin, to legalize marijuana as fully as we are able without control over Federal law. According to the FBI’s Universal Crime Reporting data (as cited in http://marijuana-arrests.com/docs/240,000-Marijuana-Arrests-In-Washington.pdf ), about a quarter of a million people have been arrested for marijuana possession in Washington over the past 25 years. While the jail terms for this “crime” were already so short before the 2012 election that few of these people are still in jail today, many of these people have permanent criminal records, limiting their access to jobs, housing and education. In effect, these people are being punished for life for an act that Washington voters have clearly declared should not be a crime at all.

Worse, the impact of this unjust life long punishment falls disproportionately on ethnic & racial minority citizens, exacerbating existing social inequalities. In the past decade in our state, Native Americans and Latinos were 1.6 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, and African Americans 2.9 times more likely. This is in spite of Health & Human Services statistics (also cited in http://marijuana-arrests.com/docs/240,000-Marijuana-Arrests-In-Washington.pdf ) showing that white people actually use marijuana at a slightly higher rate than any minority group.

I am writing to ask you to use your powers as Governor to pardon people who currently have criminal records for an activity that is no longer a crime. No-one can give them back the days they lost to unjust imprisonment, and it may not be practical to compensate them for the money lost, but it is at least relatively easy for you to remove the permanent mark that is continuing to blight peoples’ lives.

I recall that you were at best ambivalent about the legalization initiative, but the people have spoken, and issuing these pardons would be consistent with our clearly expressed will. It would also be an opportunity to advance social justice by relieving one of the many burdens that falls disproportionately on minority citizens.

Late last year, Melinda had the idea of writing to the outgoing Governor asking her to do the same thing, so we both wrote and got mildly insulting brush-off responses. There may in fact be good reasons for Gov. Gregoire not to have done this, but no-one in her office tried explaining them. A few conversations this year have reminded me of the issue, and since we have a new Governor it seemed worth trying again.

I should say that I generally dislike the fact that individuals in government have unaccountable powers to pardon people, and I especially dislike the tradition of issuing pardons en masse in the last days of someone’s term. It’s a perversion of the due process that was supposed to make us “a nation of laws, not men”, and a prime opportunity for corruption. But since the power exists, I’m not above appealing for it to be used to remedy a greater injustice.

I have no illusions about my letter suddenly persuading Gov. Inslee to act, but perhaps if enough people ask for this it will achieve something. Please add your voice, and pass this on.

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