BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota’s pardon advisory board took a significant step Wednesday in wiping criminal records clean for 26 people with low-level marijuana convictions, a first under a new policy aimed at fixing problems the records have caused for people trying to find jobs and housing.

With little discussion, the five-member panel approved the pardons in a single motion, instead of individually. The list of people, who have stayed out of trouble for five years, now goes to Republican Gov. Doug Burgum, who is expected to approve the pardons.

“People will
really see how easy and quick this is,” said Attorney General Wayne
Stenehjem, who pushed for the policy that started in July.

estimates as many as 175,000 marijuana convictions over several decades
could be eligible. The Republican said his office will contact
attorneys statewide urging them to let their former clients know of the

Stenehjem does not support legalizing recreational pot,
but he has long backed legislation that would decriminalize possession
of small amounts of marijuana.

North Dakota already had allowed
people to apply for pardons to remove marijuana-related offenses from
their records, but the process was burdensome, the attorney general
said. While the new policy doesn’t go as far as other states that
automatically dismiss or pardon convictions, it does involve an
application process.

People applying for pardons must complete a
1½-page form that law enforcement reviews before placing a case on the
pardon board’s agenda. It costs nothing to apply.

Burgum has said
the policy change could help address North Dakota’s workforce shortage
and grow its economy. He said removing the stigma for what are minor
cases from years ago in many instances allows former offenders to get
second chances and contribute to their communities.

The deadline
for the first round of applications for pardons under the new policy was
Aug. 10. The next round’s deadline is mid-January, ahead of the board’s
meeting in April, said Steve Hall, director of transitional planning
services for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

For the first round, 32 people applied but six were rejected because they didn’t meet the criteria in the new policy, Hall said.

By James MacPherson

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