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Money isn’t enough to speed up Missouri’s marijuana expungements

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Money isn’t enough to speed up Missouri’s marijuana expungements

Jun 10, 2024 | 6:50 am ET
By Rebecca Rivas
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Money isn’t enough to speed up Missouri’s marijuana expungements
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Fifth-three percent of Missouri voters signed off on a constitutional amendment legalizing recreational marijuana on Nov. 8, 2022 (Carol Yepes/Getty Images).

Out of the $7 million Missouri lawmakers approved last year to help courts expunge decades of marijuana cases, state records show less than 10% of it was spent as of mid-May.

Across the state, nearly 123,000 marijuana cases have been expunged, according to numbers compiled by the Missouri Supreme Court. But court officials have said it’s impossible to estimate how many more expungements the courts have to go.

Missouri county courts had a tight one-year deadline to clear all eligible marijuana offenses from people’s criminal records — a mandate set forth in the 2022 constitutional amendment that legalized recreational cannabis.

In a push to meet it, court leaders urged legislators last year to approve $4.5 million for state courts to pay their employees overtime or to hire temp workers, along with an additional $2.5 million in a supplemental budget

Yet, court clerks statewide soon discovered that it’s not a process more money can speed up. 

Slow process of Missouri marijuana expungement drags on months after constitutional deadlines

That’s why Nodaway County Circuit Clerk Elaine Wilson says she never ended up asking for any funds.

“Nobody wants to work overtime because we all have families,” said Wilson, who has a team of five people. “And if you hire somebody off the street, you have to train them for what they’re looking for. And I just don’t want to take that chance of them missing something.”

Wilson is far from the only clerk who felt that way. 

“With something this important,” said Cass County Circuit Clerk Kim York, “I think we all feel better having experienced clerks working on it. That’s really the only way to know with 100% certainty.”

And it shows in the numbers. 

When the money became available last fall, about half of the state’s 115 counties applied for money from the Circuit Court Budget Committee, which oversees the special assistance program. The counties asked for $4.1 million for labor costs, along with $100,000 in postage.  

As of May 15, those 62 counties had spent a total of $658,728 on paychecks and $18,290 on postage.

About half of the counties that requested money spent less than $1,000 each. 

Crawford County spent the most on regular and overtime pay with about $91,000 — half the amount the county originally requested. Next was Jasper County with $63,000. 

Looking at expungement numbers statewide, more money didn’t necessarily mean more cases reviewed or expunged. However, several clerks said they found it difficult to track the number of cases reviewed, so the state numbers likely don’t reflect the accurate totals

Greene County Circuit Clerk Bryan Feemster estimates his team has reviewed more than 80,000 cases so far, though the state numbers show about 15,000. 

Greene County has a smaller team than some of the other larger counties, Feemster said, but he was able to hire retired clerks to come back and help with the task. 

That allowed the county to expunge the most cases in the state, with 5,800 — spending $57,500 to pay the part-time retired clerks as well as overtime for full-time employees.

St. Louis County is close behind with 5,055 expunged cases, spending about $9,000 on labor costs. 

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. 

That means courts must locate these records on their own and make it as if past marijuana charges never existed. 

“Let me be the first to tell you there is nothing automatic about that,” said Betsy AuBuchon, clerk of the Missouri Supreme Court, during a House appropriations committee meeting in January

It’s a labor-intensive process, AuBuchon said, that requires someone with legal experience to look through court files. That’s why most courts are relying on existing staff or retired clerks, if they’re available. 

“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.”

By law, the special court funding for expungements must come from adult-use marijuana revenue, which includes sales tax and business fees. This revenue goes into the “Veterans, Health, and Community Reinvestment Fund,” and lawmakers appropriated the $4.2 million for the courts out of this fund. 

If it’s unspent by June 30 when the fiscal year ends, it will stay in the fund.

State lawmakers approved $3.7 million for the upcoming fiscal year that begins July 1.