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Jan. 17, 2024 |  By: Rebecca Rivas - Missouri Independent

Missouri courts request $3.7 million to continue arduous marijuana expungement process


By Rebecca Rivas - Missouri Independent

Missouri circuit courts have cleared more than 100,000 marijuana charges from people’s criminal records so far — a mandate that was a big selling point for those who voted to pass the constitutional amendment that legalized recreational marijuana in 2022.

However, court officials said it’s hard to determine how many more charges are left because many court records are not digitized. 

The state initially identified digital cases that could potentially be eligible for expungement and gave that information to the circuit courts.

“We’ve had about 100,000 cases expunged,” said Betsy AuBuchon, clerk of the Missouri Supreme Court, during a House appropriations committee meeting Wednesday, “but I can’t tell you of that how many more there are to go.”

She said the current rate of cases reviewed and deemed eligible is about 10%.

AuBuchon requested another $3.7 million in the coming budget year for Missouri courts to complete marijuana expungements.

By law, any revenue the state collects from taxes on recreational marijuana sales, along with fees the businesses pay, must first go towards the state’s costs of regulating the program. Then it goes to expenses incurred by the court system for expunging certain marijuana offenses from people’s criminal records.

Last year lawmakers signed off on $4.5 million for state courts to pay their employees overtime or to hire temp workers to complete the massive number of expungements required by law. They approved an additional $2.5 million in a supplemental budget on May 5. 

Circuit courts must request funds to reimburse their expenses for completing expungements from the Circuit Court Budget Committee, which oversees the special assistance program. 

So far, the committee has given $4.2 million to the county courts, said Beth Riggert, communications counsel of the Missouri Supreme Court. And the committee has allocated the funds to any circuit court that has requested it, she said. 

“Some circuit courts have advised they have not requested special assistance funds because they did not have current court clerks willing or able to work overtime,” Riggert said, “and/or have been unable to find qualified individuals to provide special assistance because the analysis required is complicated and better done by experienced personnel, such as retired clerks.”

As of Jan. 2, Missouri courts have granted 103,558 expungements. Out of all the counties, Greene County has received the most funding, nearly $940,000, and has completed the most expungements at 4,306. 

After Greene, the counties that have completed the most expungements are not necessarily the largest counties or the ones that have received the most money. 

The second highest number is 3,515 from Laclede County, which has a population of 36,000. The county has received a little more than $35,000 from the special assistance program.

In third place is St. Louis County, the state’s largest county with more than a million people, where court officials have processed 3,479 expungements. The county has received just over $135,000. The court has reviewed 11,300 files, a spokesman for the 21st Circuit Court said. 

Franklin County, which has a population of 104,000, is fourth, completing 3,200 expungements and receiving about $53,000. Franklin is just ahead of Jackson County, which has a population of 717,000. Jackson has completed 2,900 and received nearly $195,000.

The constitution mandates the courts to expunge all marijuana-related misdemeanors by June 8 and felonies by Dec. 8. State Rep. Maggie Nurrenbern, a Democrat from Kansas City, asked AuBuchon how long it will take the courts to work through the backlog. AuBuchon, like circuit clerks statewide, couldn’t give an estimate.

“We are doing our best,” AuBuchon said. 

How far along are the courts?

Greene County Circuit Clerk Bryan Feemster told The Independent last week that he brought on four experienced retired clerks in February to work part-time on expungements and, “they hit the ground running.” Their work has been guided by a list of pre-screened cases, compiled by the Office of State Court Administrator. 

The office searched for several criminal charge codes that potentially could involve marijuana and provided that list to the courts. The clerks must read through each case on the list thoroughly, he said.

“You have to look at every count in the case and see whether it actually had to do with marijuana or not,” he said.

Feemster submits timesheets and supporting documentation to the office, which then provides payment to employees on their paychecks for the expungement work. 

He’s hired additional two people to embark on the heavy lifting of paper boxes and going through thousands of paper files that can’t be pre-screened by the state. Those six clerks are dedicated to expungements. 

“They don’t do anything else,” he said.

During the 2022 campaign in support of the recreational marijuana ballot measure, supporters touted “automatic expungements” — meaning people who have already served their sentences for past charges don’t have to petition the court and go through a hearing to expunge those charges from their records. 

The courts must locate their records and make it as if their past marijuana charges never existed. 

“Let me be the first to tell you there is nothing automatic about that,” AuBuchon told legislators Wednesday. 

It’s a labor-intensive process, she said, that requires someone with legal experience to look through court files. That’s why most courts are relying on retired clerks. 

“It’s heavily frontloaded and probably not worth bringing in brand new full-time employees on the state dollar,” she said. “We really need people who know how to do that work. We are getting through those as quickly as we can.”

And that’s particularly the case with paper records, Feemster said, because it’s all manual.

“From 1989 back, we’re going through every single criminal record to find out whether there’s something in there that might qualify,” he said. “And it is, as you might imagine, very slow and tedious.”

While Greene County has a team of retired clerks who Feemster was able to recruit, other county clerks say they have one or two extra people helping complete the task. 

Marcy Anderson was appointed to serve as Johnson County’s circuit clerk in July, and she inherited the expungement task. She said she has a judge and a retired clerk who come to help out as often as they can, in addition to what her regular team can accomplish. 

“I have not done any kind of research to see how far along we are,” Anderson said. “We just continue to do it every day.”

Johnson County has a population of 54,000, and her team has completed 529 expungements, as of Jan. 2, receiving nearly $18,000 from the special assistance program. 

However her office, like every other county statewide, is simultaneously working on a large redacting project that’s required now that people can access court records on CaseNet. 

Both the redacting and expungement processes require extra help that she currently doesn’t have, but “more funds and more people” would be helpful.

In Jackson County, court clerks have reviewed more than 20,000 files that include both felony and misdemeanor drug charges, said Valerie Hartman, spokeswoman for the 16th Judicial Circuit Court. The court has expunged nearly 3,000 charges.

Some of those cases reviewed were related to marijuana, but many were not, she said. 

The court reviewed cases from 1989 through 2022 using data provided by the Office of State Courts Administrator, the Missouri Corrections Department and the Missouri State Highway Patrol, she said. All files that contained drug charges were included in the review.

Now the court is researching how to access old criminal databases, in order to identify and review additional paper case files, Hartman said. 

“We have no information,” she said, “nor an estimate on how many additional drug cases await our review.”