Senators renew plea for ‘streamlined’ process for pardoning nonviolent marijuana convictions

Tens of thousands of Nebraskans have convictions on their records for pot possession, statistic shows

By: - September 27, 2023 4:00 am
Man smoking marijuana

A man smokes licensed medicinal marijuana in Berlin, Germany. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

LINCOLN — A trio of state senators renewed their call Tuesday for the State Board of Pardons to adopt a “streamlined” process for people to be forgiven for minor marijuana convictions that do not involve violence.

In a letter, State Sens. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln, and Terrell McKinney and Justin Wayne, both of Omaha, said that a “second chance” should be afforded to minor drug offenders by removing barriers to better jobs, education and professional licenses.

State Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln on the floor of the Legislature. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner).

“Making sure Nebraskans can move on from past mistakes and are fully able to find good jobs is one of the most effective anti-recidivism tools, and is critical for our shared public safety goals,” stated the letter, which follows a similar request in June.

But in responses to questions from the Examiner on Tuesday, the three members of the board — Gov. Jim Pillen, Attorney General Mike Hilgers and Secretary of State Bob Evnen — all said that they oppose any process to provide a “blanket” pardon for dozens of people at once.

President issued federal pardon

That is an apparent reference to action taken by President Joe Biden 11 months ago, when he issued a presidential proclamation pardoning all federal convictions for simple marijuana possession offenses.

At the time, Biden called on governors to follow suit, and provide pardons for state convictions for minor possession of pot — a request that then-Gov. Pete Ricketts and then-Attorney General Doug Peterson called the “wrong direction.”

Gov. Jim Pillen (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

On Tuesday, a spokeswoman for Pillen said that the current governor opposes issuing blanket pardons for any offenses, including drug offenses.

“Each case brought before the board is considered on its own merits, and involves weighing individual circumstances, including whether the person has demonstrated a record of law-abiding conduct, before a pardon is granted,” said spokeswoman Laura Strimple.

Hilgers and Evnen provided similar comments.

Answer not responsive

Conrad said later Tuesday that she appreciated the clarification from the three Republicans on the Pardons Board. But, she said, the request from the three senators — all Democrats — wasn’t for a blanket pardon, but for creation of a clear, simpler process to obtain a pardon for a misdemeanor pot conviction that might have occurred years ago.

“I look forward to learning more about what their plans actually are to develop and publicize a process for Nebraskans with past, simple possession charges to get a clean slate,” Conrad said.

That, she added, would align with stated interest from the governor and attorney general to address “smart justice reform” and the state’s workforce shortage.

Perhaps 29,000 convicted

This could impact a lot of people — statistics provided by the state court system indicate that upwards of 29,000 people were convicted of offenses involving marijuana during the past 12 years.

The statistics did not delineate how many of those offenses were misdemeanors — possession of less than a pound — but Conrad said that its clear that tens of thousands Nebraskans have such minor marijuana offenses on their records.

The senator said she’s heard Pillen “talk passionately” about providing a second chance for criminal offenders, and the Board of Pardons could do something about that by adopting a pardon process for simple marijuana possession that would not require hiring an attorney.

‘Step up and do more’

“We should at least be able to come together and start a conversation about folks who made a mistake in the past,” Conrad said. “We really need to have the Pardons Board step up and do more.”

The exchange comes as the Pardons Board prepares to meet on Wednesday at the State Capitol.

The board is scheduled to consider 27 requests for a commutation (lowering a sentence) or a pardon (an official forgiveness) of past criminal convictions. The pleas usually involve people who are seeking to apply for a better job or a college scholarship, or want to restore their rights to bear arms or go hunting with a relative or child.

The Legislative Research Office, in a recent report to the three senators, indicated that at least 26 states have adopted “marijuana record-clearing laws” of some kind.

In Colorado — a state in which marijuana for recreational use is legal — Gov. Jared Polis issued a blanket pardon in 2021 for anyone convicted of possession of two ounces or less of marijuana.

The Rocky Mountain state also has a “clean slate” law — as do at least 11 other states, including Minnesota and Oklahoma. The Colorado law, passed in 2022, allows for automatic sealing of minor arrest records and convictions if a person has led a crime-free life for a set amount of time — four years for a petty offense.

The goal is to remove a black mark from a job application that could prevent someone from being hired.

The letter from the senators does not call for adoption of a clean slate law, but instead urges the Pardons Board to “proactively grant pardons” for minor marijuana offenses as an “act of grace and goodwill to those former offenders who have changed their ways.”

Nebraska Attorney General Mike Hilgers  (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Conrad said the three constitutional officers on the Pardons Board have the power to do that without the need for a legislative bill. However, an interim study is underway on pardoning drug offenses, and such studies typically are a prelude to the introduction of legislation.

Hilgers, the attorney general, in his response Tuesday said that a blanket pardon would include some people who did not request a pardon, and could ignore other potential crimes and other parts of their record.

It would be “inconsistent with (the Pardons Board’s) responsibility,” he said.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.

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