When Aysha Pathan got word recently that the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office eliminated more than 13,000 cannabis-related convictions, the San Jose State University student was thrilled.
“I dropped everything and started reading all these articles,” Pathan said. “I kind of knew something was happening, but I didn’t know the number. I was really happy to see the 13,000.”
As president of the college’s Students Against Mass Incarceration group, Pathan and a handful of her classmates spent the last year and a half working to persuade District Attorney Jeff Rosen to take this action.
Recreational cannabis use became legal in California after the November 2016 election. In 2018, then governor Jerry Brown signed a bill requiring the Department of Justice and local district attorneys to review past marijuana-related convictions that were eligible to be expunged or redesignated to reflect the changed law.
Pathan, now a senior, was taking a sociology class at the university titled “Social Action” when Assemblyman Rob Bonta authored this bill.
The class is taught by Scott Myers-Lipton, who pushes his students to go beyond learning about society’s thorniest issues and begin to do something about them.
“The heart of sociology is about power,” Myers-Lipton said. “(The students) choose a campaign based on their interest, and they come up with a policy. I help them see how they can get more power.”
Pathan and a few of her classmates latched onto the idea of cannabis criminal record clearance for their project.
“It was something that was in the air,” Pathan said. “Everyone was talking about it.”
From there, Students Against Mass Incarceration was born. The students tapped college sociology professor William Armaline to be their faculty adviser and got to work. Armaline directs the university’s Human Rights Institute and is well-versed on the topic.
“They approached me as a student group wondering if they could work on this stuff,” Armaline said. “They really took the lead on a great deal of this.”
Later that semester, the students hosted a public forum that featured many of the issue’s key players, including Bonta, district attorney representatives and Assemblyman Ash Kalra, who shares a similar passion for cannabis record clearance.
“Pushing for these cases to be cleared is something that is so important,” Kalra told San José Spotlight. “(It’s) absolutely linked to economic justice as (the convictions) prevent individuals from getting jobs and other resources, and the fact that the students connected those dots is something I’m certainly impressed by.”
A couple of the students also joined Armaline that semester for a visit with the district attorney to discuss the need for record clearance.
The following spring, the students amped up the pressure on the District Attorney’s Office with a news conference that included representatives from the San Jose Cannabis Equity Working Group and the Rev. Jeff Moore, president of the San Jose/Silicon Valley branch of the NAACP.
After the news conference, Assistant District Attorney David Angel reached out to Armaline and the students, and the two sides worked through some of the logistical issues, Armaline said.
“The rest is kind of sweet history,” he added.
Armaline credits Angel with crafting an algorithm that would help bypass a potential backlog of cases at the court and issues with getting the information updated with the Department of Justice.
“We are pleased that thousands of Santa Clara County residents will have their records automatically cleared without having to go to court,” Angel said in an email to San José Spotlight. “We hope this will help people who are looking for work, but it is just the right thing to do.”
Angel says many key players helped in getting the system in place, including criminal justice partners, the public defender and the court. Angel noted that the students and community activists played an important role as well.
“The San Jose (State) students believed passionately in this issue, and their passion was noticed, valued and respected,” Angel wrote.
Pathan graduates from San Jose State this month and says she is considering her career options. Her future may include more education to get a master’s degree in psychology.
“I want to work with youth who are going through some kind of trauma and help them reunite with their families,” she said.
The group Pathan helped create lives on at the university, too. Pathan says there are a host of issues related to mass incarceration the group could tackle, including police brutality and racial profiling.
Myers-Lipton’s students have a history of sparking change. For example, they helped increase San Jose’s minimum wage by two dollars in 2012. Myers-Lipton also advises the Student Homeless Alliance on campus, which fights for the rights of homeless students.
The professor adds that the good work continues after the students leave the campus.
“Our students graduate here, and they work right here in our community,” he said. “This class prepares them for that community engagement.”
Contact Carina Woudenberg at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @carinaew on Twitter.