BISMARCK — A North Dakota state panel approved a new policy meant to streamline the pardon application process for minor marijuana crimes Wednesday, July 10, which supporters hope will make it easier for previous offenders to find jobs and housing.
Under the new policy, people convicted of using or possessing marijuana and related paraphernalia who stay out of trouble for five years could fill out an abbreviated application for a pardon. They would be placed on the Pardon Advisory Board’s “consent agenda,” allowing the panel to rule on batches of applications.
The board makes recommendations to the governor, who takes final action on pardon requests. Republican Gov. Doug Burgum had already signaled his support for the policy change before Wednesday's special meeting, said Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, a Republican who presented the idea.
In a statement, Burgum said the change was consistent with recent legislative actions and efforts to address the state's workforce shortage by reducing barriers to employment.
"By destigmatizing these minor and, in many cases, distant offenses, we can give individuals a second chance at a successful, healthy and productive life," he said.
Though he opposes marijuana legalization, Stenehjem argued “the statutes have to reflect the relative severity of the crime.”
“And the burden shouldn’t be something that person has to carry around forever,” he added. “That’s what this is designed for.”
It wasn’t immediately clear how many people would take advantage of the new policy. Stenehjem, a member of the board, shared an email estimating it could affect more than 175,000 people.
"It is a lot of North Dakotans who have this issue," he said.
The pardon application and required background check will be free, according to Stenehjem's office. The form is available on the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's website.
The Pardon Advisory Board’s move came after North Dakota voters declined to legalize marijuana at the ballot box last year. Legalization proponents are planning another run in 2020 with a more regulated proposal.
Stenehjem said he wasn’t proposing the new pardon policy to throw cold water on another ballot campaign, but he said “it could have that effect.”
Burgum signed legislation this year reducing penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana, but that change was only expected to bring the law in line with current judicial practices. He also approved legislation allowing people to petition for certain criminal records to be sealed if they remain crime-free for several years.
But Stenehjem said sealing records "is more difficult than you might think" since his office can't alter digital files that are shared with federal law enforcement agencies. He said pardons allow cases to be removed from the name-based search on the state's public website, and pardoned offenders could "honestly say" they haven't been convicted of the offense when asked through a job or housing application.
Dave Owen, who has been leading marijuana legalization efforts in North Dakota, wasn't aware of the policy change but said it sounded "wonderful." He said, however, that it wouldn't deter another push to legalize the drug.
"It doesn't change the fact that we are continuing to give kids criminal records," Owen said.