September 1, 2020

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A second wave of applicants seeking pardons for low-level marijuana crimes is on North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum’s desk, under a new policy that can erase records of people who have avoided unlawful behavior for five years.

But even with the endorsement of the state’s pardon advisory board, getting a record wiped clean is no guarantee with the first-term Republican governor, who personally reviews each application.

The governor this week is reviewing 26 applications forwarded to him earlier by the pardon advisory board, Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki said. It is not clear when the review will be completed.

“It’s a responsibility (the governor) takes very seriously and he personally reviews each recommendation very carefully,” Nowatzki said.

The policy was adopted last year and, if granted, deletes the low-level pot convictions as if they never occurred and the records are shielded from public view.

Burgum and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem both supported the change, which brings North Dakota in line with some other states and cities. Past convictions can be problematic for people trying to find jobs and housing.

But Burgum only granted 16 pardons from the 26 applications sent to him in the first wave.

Nowatzki said the governor refused to endorse the remaining 10 because of “more serious offenses on their records.”

People applying for pardons must complete a 1½-page online form, then law enforcement reviews the forms before placing them on the pardon board’s agenda. Applications may then be approved in batches, instead of individually. It costs nothing to apply.

Those turned down for a pardon may still apply in a longer, more detailed application, Nowatzki said.

Stenehjem has said as many as 175,000 marijuana convictions over several decades could be eligible, though a fewer-than-expected number of people have applied.

Stenehjem said Monday the new policy “is still not widely enough known,” despite media coverage and an ongoing effort by his office to reach out to attorneys statewide urging them to let their clients and former clients know of the change.

Some may not go through the process because they haven’t had trouble getting a job or housing with the low-level convictions on their record, he said.

Stenehjem, who is a member of the pardon advisory board, said those applying under the new policy also will no longer have their names listed in the panel’s meeting minutes or agenda. The names may still be accessed through an open records request, he said.

Stenehjem said some applicants successfully made the case that the process had “re-victimized” them by making their names public.

“We are not putting their names on the agenda and we’re not going to advertise them,” he said.