A New Program in One State Will Help People Expunge Marijuana Convictions

A state-funded program will provide free legal services to Illinois residents with marijuana convictions.

A state-funded program will provide free legal services to Illinois residents with marijuana convictions. Shutterstock

 

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A state-funded coalition of legal organizations will help Illinois residents navigate the process of criminal record expungement for pot-related offenses.

When Illinois legalized recreational cannabis, Gov. J.B. Pritzker made it clear that the state’s intent was not just to open a legal market for the drug, but also to ensure that people who had been arrested or convicted for pot-related offenses had their records cleared. 

"We are ending the 50-year-long war on cannabis," Pritzker declared in December of last year.

Now, going through the expungement process will be a little easier, thanks to a state-funded program that will provide free legal services to those with marijuana convictions. New Leaf Illinois is a collective of 20 organizations like Prairie State Legal Services and the Greater Chicago Legal Clinic. 

The coalition was formed by the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation, an organization formed by the state’s 1999 Equal Justice Act which is responsible for distributing funding appropriated by the state to support nonprofit legal aid programs. This time, the funding for legal aid services comes from tax revenue raised by marijuana sales. 

The Illinois Equal Justice Foundation received $1.6 million to create the New Leaf program. Of that, $1.46 million has been distributed through grants to legal aid organizations.

Many marijuana crimes have been automatically expunged since recreational cannabis was legalized in Illinois in January of this year. The expunged crimes are  mainly misdemeanors and low-level felonies for possession of a small amount of marijuana (as long as the possession charge was unrelated to a violent crime charge). The state set a 2025 deadline for automatic expungement of these convictions, as well as cases where someone was arrested but not convicted. The Illinois State Police estimate they’ll be done well before that deadline.

But of the approximately 778,000 marijuana convictions eligible for expungement, about 71,000 criminal records don’t qualify for automatic expungement, according to estimates from the Equal Justice Foundation. These cases mainly include people convicted of possession of more than 30 grams but less than 500 grams of marijuana.

At a press conference on Thursday, organizers of the legal aid effort said this population can’t be left behind. “These individuals may have a criminal record that could make it harder for them to actually get a job, advance their education, or even be able to rent an apartment,” said Gray Matteo-Harris, an IEJF board member.

“If you look at the data, Black and brown people and economically disadvantaged communities were disproportionately penalized by past criminalization,” she said. “The expungement process is one step toward repairing that harm for people who were previously arrested or prosecuted for something that is now legal for all of us.”

Before legalization, Black residents of Illinois were seven times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, which the ACLU noted was the third highest rate of disparity in marijuana arrests among states. In some counties, the numbers were even more extreme. Black people were 24 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in Peoria County and 43 times more likely in Tazewell County.

People with criminal records in Illinois may have trouble accessing social safety net programs like food stamps and public housing, as well as the other challenges associated with a criminal record like increased scrutiny during job applications and an inability to attain an occupational license for certain industries.

On the last day of 2019, Pritzker issued more than 11,000 pardons to people with low-level marijuana convictions and said that “the defining purpose of legalization is to maximize equity for generations to come.” He promised that more help would be coming for those hoping to see their records expunged.

On Thursday, state Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, a Democrat who was one of the lead sponsors of the 2019 cannabis legalization legislation, said that “today is one of those really good days in Illinois politics where we can say: promises made, promises kept.”

Her partner on the legislation, state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, said that expungement was always a key part of the state’s plan. “At the heart of our cannabis legalization effort was the concept of a three-legged stool—representing restoration, reinvestment and inclusion,” she said.

“The New Leaf Illinois program is helping to embody these principles by working to restore communities who’ve been hit hardest by the war on drugs, reinvest in individuals who continue to be unfairly punished by past convictions, and include everyone, especially those who have been historically marginalized and shut out,” she said.

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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