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North Dakota pardon board recommends 1st batch of applicants under new policy for marijuana offenses

North Dakota pardon board recommends 1st batch of applicants under new policy for marijuana offenses

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North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, left, Board Chairman H. Patrick Weir, second from left, and the other members of the North Dakota Pardon Advisory Board approve the first batch of pardons for marijuana convictions on Wednesday in Bismarck.

North Dakota's Pardon Advisory Board has recommended to Gov. Doug Burgum the first applicants for pardons for low-level marijuana offenses.

The board's unanimous vote to recommend the 26 initial applicants for pardons came Wednesday with little discussion. Now the five-person panel wants to better publicize its new policy for relief from minor marijuana convictions.

Five people make up the board, including North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, two governor's appointees and two members of the state Parole Board. The Pardon Advisory board meets at least twice a year.

The board in July approved a policy change easing the process for pardons for convictions in North Dakota of marijuana possession or ingestion or paraphernalia possession. A pardon essentially removes guilt for an offense.

An applicant is eligible under the new policy if he or she has not violated any criminal laws within five years prior to filling out the application. The policy does not cover convictions for intent to deliver marijuana, or for manufacturing or delivering the drug.

Stenehjem has estimated as many as 175,000 cases going back decades could be eligible under the new policy. Eligible persons may submit a 1½-page application available at docr.nd.gov/parole-pardon-boards.

Stenehjem said the small number of initial applicants could be due to a "fairly short" window for the first opportunity to apply. He and other board members discussed ways to "get the word out" about the new policy.

The attorney general plans to contact all the attorneys in North Dakota, as well as the State Bar Association of North Dakota and the state Supreme Court. Board Chairman H. Patrick Weir suggested sending information to county auditors to post in courthouses.

The next deadline for submitting applications for pardons under the new policy is in mid-January for the board's April 2020 meeting.

Burgum is expected to approve the pardons recommended by the board on Wednesday.

The first-term Republican governor has pardoned 21 people convicted of various crimes since he took office in December 2016, a rate surpassing his two predecessors. He told the Tribune last year he believes attitudes have shifted on addiction and he doesn't think a person should be "trailed around" by a conviction that may involve their addiction.

Burgum also previously said the pardon board's new policy is consistent with the Legislature's and his efforts and offers a second chance to people with minor or long-ago offenses.

Stenehjem, a Republican, said he believes criminal penalties and consequences should be proportionate to the offense. He also has said he's seen people with minor marijuana-related convictions struggle to find housing and employment.

The 2019 Legislature passed a law allowing 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 by the law.

But Stenehjem said that process is burdensome.

"You have to get a lawyer, you have to file a motion to the court and you have to go into court and it's a lengthy, potentially expensive process," he said.

State Court Administrator Sally Holewa said she wasn't immediately aware of the frequency of district court filings under the new law.

The pardon board's new policy is "designed to be way easier," Stenehjem said.

"You just file a one-page application, and as long as you haven't had another criminal offense in five years, it's fairly automatic and free," he said.

Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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