Some 350 people convicted of misdemeanor marijuana crimes in Manhattan will have their offenses hidden from public criminal records under a new class-action settlement, the Wall Street Journal reports. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. and attorneys from nonprofit and pro-bono legal-services groups, including the Legal Aid Society, collaborated for nearly a year on the petition to seal criminal records of some marijuana offenses, such as smoking in public or possessing less than 25 grams of the drug. The attorneys called the settlement an unprecedented first step that could result in additional class-action cases, potentially affecting thousands of people. It could lead to similar criminal convictions being sealed in other boroughs and across the state, the attorneys said.
Emma Goodman of the Legal Aid Society, said sealing criminal records can change lives and open doors for employment, housing, government programs and more. The change was made possible by a provision of New York’s Raise the Age Act, a package of criminal-justice reforms signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2017. Under the law, people who were convicted of up to two nonviolent, low-level offenses, but had no other contact with the criminal-justice system for a decade, are eligible to petition local authorities to seal the convictions on their records, making them invisible to anyone except for law enforcement. Approximately 600,000 people across New York state are eligible for the Raise the Age program. Only 1,200 have taken advantage of it so far due to a lack of awareness and difficulty executing the paperwork. Vance said he is considering applying the precedent set by the case to other people who are eligible to have convictions sealed from their records. He said New York City’s relatively low crime levels have created a setting for criminal-justice overhauls.