Tuesday, August 27, 2019
As previously noted in posts here and here, the folks at Code for America have been putting their tech expertise to good use in California to aid that state with its marijuana offense expungement efforts. Now, as reported in this local article from Chicago, the Code folks are going to be doing the same in Illinois. The article is headlined "Thousands of weed convictions will be automatically expunged in Cook County: ‘We are righting the wrongs of the past’." Here are excerpts:
Tens of thousands of cannabis convictions will be automatically expunged under a partnership between a tech nonprofit and Cook County prosecutors, part of an effort State’s Attorney Kim Foxx characterized as “righting the wrongs of the past.” Foxx said the collaboration with Code for America would help atone for prosecutors’ role in an overzealous “war on drugs.”
“It is prosecutors who were part of the war on drugs, we were part of a larger ecosystem that believed that in the interest of public safety, that these were convictions that were necessary to gain,” Foxx said at a news conference Tuesday. “In the benefit of hindsight and looking at the impact of the war on drugs, it is also prosecutors who have to be at the table to ensure that we are righting the wrongs of the past.”...
Under its partnership with the county, the California-based Code for America will automate the process for Cook County convictions involving amounts smaller than 30 grams. Such offenses include misdemeanors as well as Class 4 felonies, the lowest category of felony in Illinois. Code for America’s program will sift through state and county data to identify which records are eligible for the expungement, then complete paperwork for prosecutors to submit to judges, who can formally throw out the convictions. Code for America is a not-for-profit that will begin the work at no cost to the county, said Jennifer Pahlka, the group’s founder and executive director.
The county hopes to begin the automated process as soon as possible, even ahead of Jan. 1 when marijuana legalization takes effect. Foxx wants the automatic expungements to apply to as many convictions as far back as possible, though she acknowledged the process may be difficult for older, nondigitized records. Foxx said she has been in talks with other county authorities to prepare for the anticipated flood of expungements, including the possibility of setting up a separate court call for judges to formally vacate the convictions en masse....
Expunged records will not appear on routine background checks, potentially making it easier for affected people to find jobs and housing. The expunged marijuana convictions also will not appear in law enforcement databases. The automatic expungements will require no work on the part of the affected citizens, who will get a letter from the Circuit Court clerk’s office informing them their conviction has been tossed out.
Marijuana cases that were charged along with other offenses will not be eligible for the automated program. Anyone hoping to expunge those convictions would have to go through the normal process.
Code for America has previously worked with prosecutors in San Francisco, where a pilot program helped them “clear” thousands of convictions dating back to 1974, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón told the Tribune in a phone interview Tuesday. More than 9,000 convictions were affected, with Code for America handling about 8,000. Misdemeanors were thrown out and felonies were reduced to misdemeanors, Gascón said.
The biggest hurdle for Cook County will likely be getting conviction data in a form that Code for America can use, Gascón said. But once that is done, “literally, you will be clearing out hundreds and hundreds of records per minute.”
Expunging convictions frees people from what Gascón called a “paper prison” that affects people’s lives after they have fulfilled their sentences. “That marginalizes people in so many different ways,” he said. “Going through this process will begin to repair the harm that we as a society have been doing to people for so long.”