Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms wants to restrict public access to people’s criminal records for convictions of less than an ounce of marijuana — an executive action announced Monday that she said was “in keeping with our commitment to meaningful criminal justice reform.”
The administrative order requires city officials — specifically the chief operating officer, city attorney, solicitor and chief judge of the Municipal Court — to establish a standard process by which people can apply to have those court records made off-limits to everyone except law enforcement by Feb. 1.
The order also impacts criminal records of people convicted of disorderly conduct under a city ordinance that was repealed by Mayor Shirley Franklin in 2007. That ordinance allowed police to arrest people for merely being “in a place where illegal drugs or narcotics are sold or possessed.”
A spokesman for the mayor said it is unclear how many people the new restrictions would impact, but said the administrative order has been in the works for months. It follows other criminal justice action by the administration: Bottoms is working to close the city’s detention center, and has eliminated cash bail for detainees.
“The fact remains that communities of color are disproportionately affected by the lingering stigma of victimless, minor offenses — even long after the accused have paid their debts,” Bottoms said in a prepared statement. “This outmoded practice deprives our communities and workforce of brilliant and promising minds, all because of an unfair justice system that can and will be course-corrected.”
The move drew praise from a wide variety of advocacy groups, but also raised questions from people concerned about access to public records.
Cynthia Counts, a board member at the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said the city should instead consider advocating for the legalization of pot. Counts said it is wrong for the public to not have access to conviction records for judges, teachers, preachers, elected officials or candidates, which would also be restricted under the order.
“My concern with it is it’s still a knowing violation of the law,” she said. “Certainly, a knowing violation of the law being kept from public access is a problem.”
Tiffany Williams Roberts, an attorney for the Southern Center for Human Rights, said in a statement that if the mayor’s intent is to fast-track record restriction applications in minor pot cases, she hopes it will bring relief to people convicted of those misdemeanors.
Bottoms’ order is consistent with the city’s decision to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, said Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia. She said some of the worst racial disparities in law enforcement show up in pot charges.
“We look forward to a day when no one faces criminal charges because of marijuana use,” Young said in a statement.
Across the country, prosecutors in cities like Seattle, Chicago and Los Angeles are erasing thousands of marijuana convictions. Recreational pot is legal in at least 11 states, including Washington, California and Illinois.
Marijuana is still illegal in Georgia. A law allowing hemp farming passed by the state legislature this year has led several solicitors to announce that they will not prosecute misdemeanor marijuana cases because of the difficulty in distinguishing marijuana from hemp.
Some details of Bottoms’ order, first announced via tweet, are still being worked out. The city spokesman said to the best of his knowledge, it would not have any effect on city policies like pre-employment drug testing.
Jill Cartwright, the Georgia statewide organizer for the racial and economic justice group Southerners on New Ground, said she thought the mayor’s move was important but doesn’t go far enough, because police will still have access to conviction records.
Most people who are arrested on marijuana charges are black males, Cartwright said, and the arrests can prevent them from finding housing or jobs. The disproportionate impact on communities of color makes it harder for people to break cycles of jail and poverty, she said. Cartwright called Bottoms’ action “a band-aid.”
“She’s going in the right direction,” Cartwright said of the mayor. “I think it will honestly help a lot more people get on their feet. It will help communities heal when people move on from the past. I think it’s a beautiful thing.”