Stenehjem, Weir, Lamb

North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, left, speaks at a state Pardon Advisory Board meeting at the State Penitentiary in Bismarck on Wednesday. The board unanimously approved a policy change at Stenehjem's request that creates a shortened pardon application process for people with certain marijuana convictions. In the background is Board Chairman H. Patrick Weir and Board Member Carmelita Lamb.

The North Dakota Pardon Advisory Board has created a shortened application process for people seeking to get certain marijuana convictions wiped from their records.

The board unanimously approved a policy change at a special meeting Wednesday that creates a simplified pardon application for people convicted of possessing marijuana, ingesting the drug or possessing paraphernalia.

An applicant is eligible if they have not violated any criminal laws within the past five years prior to filling out the application. It does not cover intent to deliver, manufacture or delivery of marijuana.

The five-member advisory board is composed of two people appointed by the governor, two members of the state Parole Board and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem.

The policy change was introduced by Stenehjem, who said pardons for pot offenses have been a topic he's "been thinking about for a long time."

Stenehjem said that when he was in private law practice, he occasionally saw people convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana who later struggled with applying for housing or employment due to the conviction.

“I think it’s well-known that I am not a proponent of recreational marijuana; I don’t think we need more drug use in North Dakota, and I don’t think that our state would be healthier or safer if we have more drug usage than we do, but at the same time I think that our criminal penalties and our consequences ought to be proportionate to the offense," he said.

The new pardon application process aligns with the progressive approach of the Pardon Advisory Board and Gov. Doug Burgum, who has final say over whether to pardon someone.

Last year, the board approved a policy change that broadened the types of pardon applications it considers to include the effects of alcohol or substance use disorders.

Burgum said in a statement Wednesday the policy change "is consistent with the Legislature's recent actions" and his efforts aimed at reducing or eliminating barriers to employment.

"By destigmatizing these minor and, in many cases, distant offenses, we can give a second chance at a successful, healthy and productive life," he said.

A bill that passed in the North Dakota Legislature this year and is now law allows people to petition to seal their court records for certain convictions if they have not violated any criminal laws in a period of time defined under the law.

Stenehjem said the law creates "problems" for the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation, which maintains the state's criminal history repository. BCI's criminal records are digitized and shared between the state and federal governments, he said, and BCI doesn't have the "authority necessarily to go in and tinker with or delete records."

The law also outlines a "lengthy and laborious process" he said he doesn't think many people will use.

"People will go this route, I think," Stenehjem said of the pardon application process.

It's unclear how many people will use the new process. Stenehjem estimated the policy change could affect about 175,000 cases in North Dakota.

Those seeking a pardon for eligible marijuana offenses will fill out a free, 1 ½ page application. It will then be placed on the board's consent agenda, which is typically approved in one action.

No board member spoke out against the idea on Wednesday.

"I'm all in favor of the policy change," said Board Chairman H. Patrick Weir. "I think it’s in line with not only what I think the governor’s philosophy is towards corrections and rehabilitation but is also in line with what we do on the parole side."

The new pardon application can be found on the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's website at: docr.nd.gov/parole-pardon-boards. The deadline to apply for a pardon and be considered at the board's November meeting is Aug. 10.

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(Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or Blair.Emerson@bismarcktribune.com)