Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

Editor: Douglas A. Berman
Moritz College of Law

Monday, December 28, 2020

Update on the state of marijuana expungements in the Prairie State

Download (16)The Chicago Tribune has this new extended article details the status of expungement efforts in Illinois, and its full headline captures its themes: "Pot legalization was to bring expungements to many with records in Illinois. Numbers so far are low, but more are expected to be on the way."  Here are excerpts:

Marijuana legalization in Illinois came with grand plans for wiping clean many criminal records involving cannabis.  That aspect of the law was so important that on the eve of legalization on Jan. 1, 2020, Gov. J.B. Pritzker pardoned more than 11,000 people of low-level marijuana convictions.

Yet more than 700,000 cases could qualify for expungement, a process in which police and court records of arrests and convictions are cleared.  The process is crucial to giving people with such records a better chance at getting a job, an education and a place to live.

Now, almost one year after legalization took effect, few of those cannabis cases have been cleared. But officials say more expungements are on the way.  Under the legalization legislation, Illinois State Police were tasked with identifying by Jan. 1, 2021, those cases that occurred since 2013 that could be expunged automatically.  That amounts to some 47,000 cases, Toi Hutchinson, Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s senior adviser on cannabis, said.  With the deadline just days away, state police said they would make an announcement about those expungements soon.

In Cook County, State’s Attorney Kim Foxx worked with a nonprofit tech company called Code for America to identify and clear 2,200 cases early this year.  But during the COVID shutdown of courts, that process was delayed for months. Now, prosecutors there plan to expunge another 11,000 cases early in 2021.

McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally also went to court to get about 1,900 cases expunged early in 2020. But in general, other counties have not taken such initiative.  Some are still waiting for state police to identify which cases are eligible. Lake County, for instance, the state’s attorney’s office knew of only two requests to vacate and expunge records, both of which were granted.

As a result, many people are still paying the price for having small amounts of marijuana that customers now buy routinely at pot shops.  On the production side, licensed cannabis companies are churning out tons of the plant, amounts that previously could have earned life sentences in prison.

Now, after months of delays in the process, in part because of the pandemic, advocates are trying to reboot parts of the state’s plan to clear convictions.  While only misdemeanor and the lowest level felony cases are eligible for automatic expungement, there remain an estimated 71,000 cases involving larger amounts of cannabis that don’t qualify for automatic expungement but are eligible to be cleared in court, advocates say.  Yet very few individuals have come forward seeking to clear their records, advocates say.  They blame lack of familiarity with the process by the public, courts and court clerks.

In response, a program called New Leaf is seeking to get people with pot convictions to come forward and get their slates wiped clean.  New Leaf brings together 20 nonprofit organizations to help people get through the sometimes difficult process, which can take months or years.  The program is being led by Illinois Legal Aid Online, which has step-by-step instructions for people to take part.  The effort is being funded by taxpayers through the nonprofit Illinois Equal Justice Foundation.

Criminal justice developments and reforms, Recreational Marijuana State Laws and Reforms | Permalink


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