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Illinois expunged 800K cannabis criminal records in three years. Here's why there's still a big gap

A customer rolls a joint made of half marijuana and half tobacco in Olympia, Wash., on December 9, 2012.
Nick Adams
A customer rolls a joint made of half marijuana and half tobacco in Olympia, Wash., on December 9, 2012.

When the State of Illinois legalized adult-use recreational cannabis three years ago, the law established funding and pathways for people to clear their records of previous marijuana arrests and convictions.

But for various reasons, many people still have not taken advantage of the opportunity to receive expungements.

New Leaf Illinois, a state-funded network of 18 advocacy and legal aid agencies all across the state, is working to assist people in pursuing a remedy through the court system.

The Illinois Equal Justice Foundation, a non-profit organization that helps fund legal services for low-income residents, administers New Leaf’s funding. IEJF Executive Director Leslie Corbett says the mission is to give people a clean slate.

“It is a key component of the social equity intent of the legalization of cannabis, and the state has appropriated $1.6 million annually since fiscal year 2020 to fund this effort,” said Corbett. “These funds have been distributed to nonprofit legal aid organizations and community outreach organizations across the state through a competitive grants process.”

More than 800,000 people have had arrest and conviction records expunged over the past three years. That includes more than 26,000 pardons issued by Governor JB Pritzker.

State Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, D-Peoria, was instrumental in crafting the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act (CRTA) that took effect on Jan. 1, 2020. She says it was important for the law to feature three key social equity components: reinvesting in disproportionately impacted communities, providing opportunities for minority ownership of cannabis businesses, and repairing lives harmed by the criminal justice system.

State Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, D-Peoria
State Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, D-Peoria

“We knew that it was important that we give the ability for individuals to be able to not just change the law, but to then give them access to justice – because those are two very, very different things,” said Gordon-Booth. “You can change the law, but if people don’t have access to the attorneys, they don’t have access to those lawyers who are going to work through their cases, it’s like giving someone rice without giving them the water and the pot and the fire to boil it to actually give them something that they could actually nourish their lives with.”

Erin Johnson, Illinois’ Acting Cannabis Regulation Oversight Officer, says people with outdated cannabis offenses still on their criminal records often encounter barriers to advancement.

“If you have a drug conviction, you’re not eligible for federal student aid, which means that a lot of people can’t afford to go to college and unburdening them up from a criminal conviction or drug-related criminal conviction can allow them to do that,” she said. “We talk about public housing, we talk about getting jobs, you have to check a box in a lot of cases. So that is something that is really huge to be able to alleviate in the expungement process.”

Gordon-Booth agrees, pointing out that cannabis crimes on a person’s record can be difficult to overcome.

“Oftentimes what it does is it calcifies people in poverty,” she said. “People of gainful age – we’re talking parents of children, our public school children, who are doing everything that they can, even when they go to school to be able to become licensed in a particular area – don’t have the ability to cross that threshold, and allow their God-given talent to be expressed in the workplace because of these convictions.”

Beth Johnson is IEJF’s project manager for New Leaf Illinois. She says many people aren’t sure what avenues toward legal remedies are even available.

“The hardest part for folks is knowing where to start in the process – right? – expungement and (record) sealing, generally. Then add cannabis relief on top of that,” she said. “Folks are hearing, ‘Oh, now my cannabis convictions are eligible for relief as well.’

“So the goal was to create a centralized, statewide access point that anyone could reach out to, to be able to see if, ‘Yes, am I eligible for that relief?’ – and if they are, they’d be referred to one of the legal service partners.”

Beth Johnson says New Leaf Illinois is also working with community organizations to raise awareness about the availability of cannabis expungements.

Prairie State Legal Services in Peoria is one of the agencies in the New Leaf network, which also includes Legal Aid Chicago and Land of Lincoln Legal Aid.

“It’s amazing to see how many people otherwise may not have been connected to us, if not for New Leaf and this new cannabis law,” said Regina Hernandez, a supervising attorney with Legal Aid Chicago. “They’re taking a deeper look into their record overall, where they may have not previously been eligible for something. They may have tried other routes, they’ve maybe have consulted attorneys before and been told they’re not eligible, and they’re really taking an opportunity to revisit what the law is now and get that personalized assessment.”

When the legalization law took effect, thousands of “Category 1” possession cases – arrests for low-level amounts without convictions – were automatically expunged. But Dan Kuehnert with Land of Lincoln Legal Aid notes that doesn’t include court records for those who paid a fine, completed supervision, or faced other related charges.

“A lot of folks who are arrested for cannabis also get a paraphernalia charge with them, right? They’ve got something on them, got a pipe, got whatever,” said Kuehnert. “A paraphernalia charge is not covered by automatic expungement; it’s not covered by the record review and pardon process that existed for some of the cannabis convictions. So if you’ve got a conviction or dismissed case for possession of drug paraphernalia that came along with your cannabis, we can still work with you to get that expunged or sealed, depending on the facts.”

Beth Johnson, New Leaf Illinois
Beth Johnson, New Leaf Illinois

Beth Johnson points out that Illinois’ lack of a centralized court system presents challenges, with no easy way to streamline the expungement process across the state’s 102 counties. She says other states have “clean slate” initiatives that are more automated.

“Something that Illinois is also looking at is: why are we having folks with decades-old arrests or convictions having to petition our systems to remove those? That’s the fundamental underlying issue that we have in Illinois,” she said. “It’s understandable that we don’t want everything to be automatic, but at a certain point you should not have people that have records from the 90s, early 2000s, the 60s, having to file a petition to get rid of those.”

Kuehnert says from what he’s experienced in Land of Lincoln Legal Aid’s 65-county downstate service area, officials in the justice system are growing receptive to the expungement process.

“Once we do educate folks about it, educate the judges and the clerks and the state’s attorneys, I think that there is this recognition that. ‘Oh yeah, this is a good thing to do,’” he said. “We are not seeing a lot of objections to these petitions related to vacate and expunging cannabis convictions. A lot of our judges and prosecutors, even ones who might see themselves as sort of hardline law and order folks, recognize that there’s this change in attitude about this and change in the law regarding cannabis, and people should not be having this held against them.”

Hernandez says cannabis criminal issues that remain on a person’s record can result in a cascade of collateral consequences.

“Not being able to find a job, that may lead to a number of other legal issues that someone who has been affected by this war on drugs could be experiencing,” she said. “Not having a job can lead to evictions, can lead to family law issues, public benefits issues. There’s so many things that I think people really take for granted who have not ever been arrested or have ever really had to deal with a criminal record. It’s important to not only to destigmatize it, but raise awareness as to just what that domino effect is because it is vast in how it affects our residents.”

Gordon-Booth says people with cannabis criminal issues in their past being able to get their lives turned around by clearing their records is “a game-changer.”

“I’ve done a lot of things since I’ve been in the General Assembly on the policy side, and none of them – none of them – come close to what it feels like to be involved in the expungement space and in seeing people’s lives change for the better,” she said.

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.