Despite running in 2020 on a platform partially of cannabis reform and expungements from the country’s draconian past in regards to drug laws, President Joe Biden had historically been instrumental in creating and implementing those very damaging laws. One of the biggest achievements of his political career occurred in 1994, when then Delaware senator Biden authored The 1994 Crime Bill, a sweeping bill that radically changed and strengthened the criminal justice system in America in the least progressive of ways.
The bill was filled to the brim with laws that exponentially expanded the already startling size of the American prison population and added several different measures such as mandatory minimum sentences and increasing the duration of prison sentences for victimless offenses. Even for people already incarcerated, the 1994 Crime Bill impacted their lives, as the bill removed the opportunity for federal or state inmates to receive a higher education while incarcerated through Pell grants.
The bill also created 60 new federal criminal acts that could be punished by the death penalty.
Biden’s 1994 brainchild was a costly bill especially by early to mid-1990’s standards, as the legislation authorized the hiring of 100,000 new police officers and the spending of $9.7 billion in funding to construct more prisons. The 1994 Crime Bill took all the existing problems of the American criminal justice system and worsened nearly every issue. Yet, because criminal justice reform has become an issue that has received significant support from both sides of the aisle, Biden quickly changed his once strongly held beliefs on the subject and became far more progressive on the issue.
When Biden was victorious in his 2020 election where he ran with California Senator Kamala Harris, the former Attorney General of California who was far from progressive herself during her tenure, the septuagenarian President-elect promised that cannabis reform on the federal level would be implemented soon after he took office. However, quite like many of his presidential predecessors who ran on unfulfilled promises that would be instituted “within the first 100 days”, the Biden administration dragged their feet heavily on the subject of cannabis pardons and expungements during the first half of this presidential term.
To the surprise of cannabis advocates everywhere, the Biden administration partially held true to their promise in early October, when the Department of Justice announced a Presidential Proclamation which would pardon federal convictions for simple cannabis possession charges.
“On October 6, 2022, President Biden announced a full, unconditional, and categorical pardon for prior federal and D.C. offenses of simple possession of marijuana. The President’s pardon lifts barriers to housing, employment, and educational opportunities for thousands of people with those prior convictions.” the announcement read.
Although, when reading the language of the announcement, you’ll notice that the measure is a small step in the right direction at best, as many other cannabis-related convictions on the federal level are not pardoned whatsoever.
“President Biden’s proclamation applies only to simple possession of marijuana offenses. Conspiracy, distribution, possession with intent to distribute, and other charges involving marijuana are not pardoned by the proclamation.”
Even worse, the proclamation would only simply pardon the simple cannabis possession offense, not fully expunge the offense. This means that the “offender” themselves would still have that charge on their criminal record.
Still, this proclamation could provide a pardon for an estimated 20,000 people, so it’s a positive step towards further sensible criminal justice reform, albeit miniscule compared to the measures still desperately needed.
At the beginning of March, the Biden administration finally published the application to fill out to possibly receive a presidential pardon from the October 6, 2022 announcement. Besides the standard information, the application will require a number of documents and pieces of relevant information regarding the original federal conviction. The most important facts regarding one’s conviction are which US District Court heard the original case, The Code Section (statute of your charge/conviction) as well as the case docket number.
Two more relevant documents you’ll need for the pardon application is the charging document such as an indictment or a complaint and the judgment of conviction or sentencing. These documents may seem difficult to locate at first, especially if it’s been several years since the initial conviction. However, there’s a fantastic public resource utilized by investigative journalists for decades that may also be incredibly useful in helping possible applicants locate their relevant documents.
Public Access to Court Electronic Records, known more commonly as PACER, is a database that collects nearly all available court documents regarding most cases in criminal and civil court. People who may be eligible for a pardon from Biden may create an account on this database and likely find their necessary documents from there.
And because I enjoy receiving and documenting governmental promises in writing even though they’re usually unfulfilled or woefully inaccurate, The Office of the Pardon Attorney ensures the speediness of the process, and that “the application for the pardon certificate is simple, and will not take long to complete, between 10 and 30 minutes.”
It’s a miniscule step in the right direction at best given the several thousands of federal cannabis convicts who were convicted of further charges beyond simple possession and are therefore ineligible for a pardon from Biden. But for 20,000 people, it may provide them at a true second chance at life free from the many societal disadvantages that come with a criminal conviction which only a pardon or expungement truly can provide freedom from.