Officials to help residents clear pot convictions

MIDDLEBURY — Addison County residents who have difficulty landing a better job or securing federal tuition assistance because of a marijuana-related blemish on their criminal record, please take note.
Addison County State’s Attorney Dennis Wygmans and a plethora of local attorneys will convene two special events this month to guide area residents through the process of getting their criminal records cleared of any past misdemeanor pot convictions. The pair of “Addison County Cannabis Expungement Days” are in line with recent state laws that have not only decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, but now allow Vermonters to possess up to an ounce of the substance and grow up to two mature plants on their property.
Bennington, Chittenden and Windsor counties have already held similar expungement sessions, Wygmans noted. And like Bennington’s session, Addison County residents will also be able to apply to have their criminal records cleared of other misdemeanor convictions, including petit larceny and retail theft.
The expungement sessions are set for Friday, Oct. 12, from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. at the probate court headquarters at the Addison County Courthouse, and on Sunday, Oct. 28, from 2 to 4:30 p.m. at Middlebury College’s Kirk Alumni Center.
Organizers are hoping for a hefty turnout, and numbers show there’s no shortage of potential candidates who could benefit from the events. Wygmans on Tuesday said there are approximately 740 misdemeanor marijuana convictions on the books at the county courthouse, dating back to 1990. And he knows there are many others who were tagged for minor pot-related offenses during the 1970s and 1980s.
“When we talk about justice, and what justice means, part of justice is (the conviction) doesn’t haunt you forever,” Wygmans said. “When you’ve paid your debt to society, you shouldn’t any longer be encumbered by that conviction.”
The record cleansing offer doesn’t extend to felonies. But past convictions for minor pot transgressions can wreak more havoc on a person’s life than some might realize, organizers noted. It can affect employment, loans and financial aid, among other things.
“Anyone who has a criminal conviction on their record for marijuana or anything else, that record follows them around forever,” noted Middlebury attorney Dave Silberman, an ardent supporter of drug policy reform who will be among those providing counsel at the two sessions.
It used to be fairly costly and complicated for employers to learn about a prospective worker’s past, but not any more.
“When you look at things that occurred 50 years ago, this is the sort of thing that unless (an employer) went out and hired someone to do a background check, you wouldn’t find anything about it,” Wygmans said. “Now, it’s a simple as doing a quick little check on the Internet, and you can find out almost anything about anybody. And someone could be denied a job, or a loan or an apartment — all based on one mistake.”
Silberman agreed, adding some employers aren’t keen on giving a chance to anyone with any kind of criminal past.
 “Employers these days — especially the larger employers — almost invariably do pre-employment criminal background checks on applicants, and many employers don’t distinguish between things like murder and growing a couple of marijuana plants in your backyard; there’s a huge distinction between screening your potential employees for past conduct like embezzlement, versus someone who got caught with a quarter-ounce of pot in their car.” he said. “And a criminal conviction is a stain on your record. It implies you’re a bad person, untrustworthy, a bad element to have around.”
And past misdemeanor drug convictions tend to have the biggest impact on people of color and of limited means, according to Silberman. As an example, he referred to a 2017 report titled “Driving While Black and Brown in Vermont,” authored by Prof. Stephanie Seguino of the University of Vermont Economic Department, and Nancy Brooks, a visiting associate professor at Cornell University. That report, among other things, asserted black drivers are four times more likely to be searched, subsequent to a stop, than white drivers in Vermont.
“The lower you are on the socio-economic ladder, the more this impacts you,” he added, explaining low-income citizens are more likely to be flagged for past criminal behavior filling out applications for entry-level jobs, as opposed to more affluent people moving up the corporate ladder.
Students can lose out of federal financial aid as a result of pot convictions, Cannabis Expungement Days organizers added.
Data from the U.S. Department of Education show that around 1,000 students nationwide lose full or partial access to Title IV aid because of a drug-related conviction, according to a 2017 report by “Inside Higher Ed,” an online publication providing news, opinion, job postings and other information related to colleges and universities. The report also noted many other prospective college students don’t apply for federal financial aid believing a past drug conviction will automatically disqualify them.
Those who attend the upcoming sessions will get free guidance on how to fill it out their criminal record expungement application. The court charges a $90 fee to process that application, but income-based fee waivers are available, and organizers are looking for sponsors to help pay fees for cash-strapped folks who don’t qualify for waivers. Wygmans said the non-profit Pennywise Foundation has agreed to provide some financial aid.
Other sponsors of the two events include Vermont Legal Aid and the Center for Justice Reform at Vermont Law School.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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