Proposition 64 said their felony charges could be reduced, but many still are waiting in Fresno County

A marijuana joint is rolled Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016, in San Francisco. Proposition 64 legalizing marijuana for recreational use passed in California. The number of Americans living in states with recreational marijuana more than tripled after at least three states voted to fully legalize the drug.
A marijuana joint is rolled Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016, in San Francisco. Proposition 64 legalizing marijuana for recreational use passed in California. The number of Americans living in states with recreational marijuana more than tripled after at least three states voted to fully legalize the drug. AP

Proposition 64 legalized pot possession in the state, but many Californians may not know it also reduced many marijuana-related felonies to misdemeanors. Those convicted of these crimes can petition the court to have their offenses reclassified – something that may clear a roadblock to better job opportunities or from being released from jail.

But in Fresno County, those petitions have been in limbo.

That’s according to an attorney with the public defender’s office appointed to handle these cases. He says the Fresno County Superior Court had failed to hear or even schedule a hearing for nearly all of his petitions made since Dec. 8 on behalf of these offenders. But frenzied action Friday by court officials may have broken the logjam.

The cases involve 19 state prisoners and five Fresno County jail inmates. It’s unclear how many would be let go, as there may be other convictions or circumstances blocking release. These numbers do not reflect any inmates with private attorneys or those who may be independently petitioning for release, nor do they include people out of custody.

Those convicted of reclassified offenses – trafficking, cultivation, possession for sale – may petition at any point to have the felony conviction removed. If it’s their only felony, the reclassification may allow them to serve on juries, vote and enlist in the military – which a felony record can bar them from.

The court, however, maintains that it is taking the time needed to hash out procedures not explicitly explained in Proposition 64. Each new policy must be checked to make sure it doesn’t violate another existing law, so implementing these new policies in a fair way takes time.

But attorney Douglas Feinberg believes the court, for whatever reason, is dragging its feet. He notes that other California counties – Orange, Merced, San Mateo – have made more progress on handling these petitions.

“As of (Thursday), the public defender office has filed at least 67 requests for relief pursuant to Proposition 64,” he said. “One of them was granted. I’m not aware of any being denied.”

Feinberg said the cases were filed between Dec. 8 and Jan. 18.

“In other counties, people are able to get rulings a week or two after filing a petition,” Feinberg said. “In Fresno, in contrast, our inmates remain in Fresno County Jail and the state prison system. We currently have people being released as part of the federal overcrowding order, while others who are required by law to be released under state law wait for the courts to calendar court hearings.”

Stephanie Louise Jamieson, a deputy public defender for Merced County, said she has had two petitions granted with no problem, as have her colleagues.

“The judges are uniformly cooperating with Proposition 64,” she said in an email.

Laura Torres, a defense attorney in San Mateo County, said the presiding judge asked for the names of all petitioners currently in custody and scheduled hearings in December. The court also has circulated a form it wants used for out-of-custody cases – those not currently in jail but who would like the felony removed from their records.

Feinberg is an attorney with the Fresno public defender’s office, but he made it clear he is speaking as the attorney handling these cases, not as a spokesman for the office. Fresno County Public Defender Liz Diaz offered this statement on behalf of her office: “I have met with the presiding judge (Kimberly A. Gaab), and these matters are going to be calendared and handled appropriately in the court as soon as possible.”

Alan Simpson, the assistant presiding judge for Fresno County Superior Court, said Friday afternoon he was surprised to hear of Feinberg’s complaints. He said leaders from the court, the public defender’s office, the district attorney’s office and county probation met on Jan. 19 to discuss Proposition 64-related issues, and this problem was not brought up.

“We’re doing everything that can be done and that we know how to do to move this process along,” Simpson said.

He said that Proposition 64 did not have a timetable for when these petitions must be heard, nor did it explain how to do that. The court has employees from every level working to identify what must be done under the new law and how to do it efficiently through the court’s computer system. Even new paper forms must be created for these new processes.

Simpson said the court also is working to accommodate those offenders who have submitted faulty petitions or letters.

However, Fresno County received information on how to implement the new law. In November the California Judicial Council – the policymaking body of the California courts – offered suggestions on how to handle these cases.

Spokesman Blaine Corren said the council circulated a memo, also available online, that detailed what laws were changing and how Proposition 64 affects the courts. It included sample forms to use as petitions, as well as suggested screening, hearing and resentencing procedures. The 72-page document also details who is eligible for these petitions and how to handle juvenile cases.

Corren said this memo was not a direct order to the courts but rather a set of suggested guidelines. How each court implements new policies was left up to them.

After The Bee’s initial inquiry Friday morning about the apparent delay in hearing petitions, the Fresno County Superior Court apparently began scheduling hearings.

At 4:45 p.m. Friday, court spokeswoman Sherry Spears emailed a statement saying that “all cases have been calendared for hearings at this time” for offenders currently serving time in jail or state prison.

Feinberg confirmed that as of 3:45 p.m., three cases had been put on the court calendar. By 5 p.m., that number had risen to 20, he said.

The court’s statement also noted that it had “reduced or dismissed 99 active cases pursuant to Proposition 64.” Between Dec. 6 and Jan. 27, it received 59 letters, miscellaneous documents, petitions, applications and other filings from defendants, attorneys and others regarding Proposition 64 resentencing.