After over a year of frustrations and finger-pointing, pardons for around ten thousand people who were convicted of simple possession of marijuana in New Orleans since 2010 — which were granted by the City Council in August of 2021 — may soon actually be reflected on peoples’ criminal records.
Municipal Court judges met last week with a representative from City Council President Helena Moreno’s office to discuss finally implementing a procedure to enter the pardons as a minute entry in anyone’s record who should have been granted one by the ordinance — though the next steps to get it done are still being ironed out.
When the pardon ordinance was passed, it was meant to address the harms caused by years of punitive and racially biased enforcement of marijuana possession in the city, and was touted as “historic” by Moreno, who sponsored the measure. Advocates hoped the new law would facilitate expungements of old marijuana convictions, and remove the barriers some people face when applying for jobs, housing, and other services.
But the ordinance did not delineate a clear process for how those pardons were supposed to be reflected in an individual’s record. While pardons could always be granted by the City Council to individuals, as part of the pardon ordinance the Council changed the law granting them authority to grant blanket pardons for a whole class of convictions for the first time.
As recently as this summer, Municipal and Traffic Court judges said they were skeptical about their authority to recognize the mass pardons. In June, Chief Municipal and Traffic Court Judge Paul Sens called the measure “ill-conceived,” and said that by waiving outstanding fees related to the cases the court had already carried out its intention.
But advocates said that having the pardons actually recognized was important — particularly given a recent state law that allows pardoned convictions to be fully expunged from criminal records free of charge. Expungements for non-pardoned convictions in Louisiana are more expensive than anywhere else in the country, costing at least $550 for each conviction.
Moreno has said that the Council already did its part by granting the pardons through the ordinance, and it was the responsibility of the court to update its system to reflect the pardons in some form.
And at the meeting last week, the judges finally seemed to come around to the idea that they are able to recognize the pardons.
In an interview with The Lens following the Thursday meeting, Sens said that the judges agreed that if the City Council presents them with the “in globo” motion that denotes each of the individuals with convictions that warrant a pardon, the court can enter that information into their case system.
“Instead of having one person petition for every case, they can list all of the information that we provided to them to the City Council,” Sens said. “And if the City Council signs off on it, we can take that information back to our IT system and have a minute entry form showing each one of them has been pardoned.”
Sens said that once the court receives the motion from the council, it will be easy enough to grant all of the pardons and have them reflected in the record.
“It won’t be a labor intensive thing to do this,” Sens said. “For us, it’s really an administrative thing once it gets approved by the City Council.”
But Andrew Tuozzolo, Chief of Staff with Moreno’s office who attended the meeting, said that he didn’t think that any additional approval was needed from the Council, given the fact that they already passed the ordinance granting the pardons. Still, he said he appreciated that the judges had come to the agreement that they at least had the authority and capability to recognize the pardons.
“We were really excited to hear the judges so quickly and so, so adroitly sort of maneuver into this exact the exact place we need it to be,” Tuozzolo said.
Sarah Whittington with the Justice & Accountability Center, said regardless of the next steps, she was determined to make sure the pardons are finally recognized — whether that requires getting the Council to sign off on a motion, or filing paperwork with the court to facilitate them being entered into the IT system.
Earlier this month, President Joe Biden announced that he would be pardoning, on a federal level, everyone who was convicted on federal simple possession of marijuana convictions. But because most marijuana enforcement is done by local authorities, those pardons were only estimated to impact around 6,500 cases nationwide — significantly fewer than the council’s pardon for municipal convictions in New Orleans alone, which is estimated at roughly 10,000 cases.
Biden also encouraged governors across the country to pardon state marijuana possession charges. But while Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards applauded Biden’s decision, he said that he didn’t believe he had the authority to grant the pardons without additional measures from the state legislature.
Whittington said that getting the pardons recognized is just the first step. It will be just as important to inform anyone impacted that their conviction has in fact been pardoned, and that they are eligible for an expungement, she said.
“It’s great to get it into the court system,” Whittington said. “But letting people know for sure that this has been pardoned and makes them eligible for free expungement — regardless of everything else on our criminal record — is important as well. We know municipal marijuana may not be the top priority for everybody. But if it’s something you can start on now and it’s free and it takes one thing off your record. I think that’s just as important.”