Recently, Illinois made the move to legalize recreational cannabis. That law does not take effect until January 1st, 2020, but the State Attorney in Cook County, Illinois is already making the move to expunge convictions for drug crimes that will no longer be considered illegal in that state.
Arrest records will begin being amended at the start of the new year, but Cook County State Attorney Kimberly Foxx has already started working on the change. She filed motions on December 11th to vacate more than 1,000 low-level cannabis convictions before the new law kicks in. The entire 1,000+ were processed in a single court call.
Foxx has been pushing for post-conviction relief for low-level, non-violent cannabis offenses since the beginning of this year.
“Despite being low-level and non-violent in nature, these cannabis convictions can create barriers to employment, housing, and education, as applicants are often asked if they have ever been convicted of a crime,” the Cook County State Attorney’s Office said.
The Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act, which the Cook County State Attorney’s Office helped create, includes a provision that “vacates” low-level cannabis convictions – which means to “undo the conviction as if it never happened and allow for the underlying record to be expunged.”
Possession of cannabis under 30 grams will be vacated automatically. If your drug offense was tacked onto a violent crime, your record will not be expunged automatically, but you can still file a petition to do so. The Cook County State Attorney’s Office even provided a timeline for when that will be complete.
The timeline starts with the most recent cases, because, as the State Attorney’s Office explains, those convictions have the most impact on people who are currently facing challenges in applying for jobs and housing. Additionally, recent cases are stored digitally, and are therefore more accessible – meaning starting with the cases processed online will allow the greatest number of convictions to be addressed in the most efficient manner possible.
Of the 1,000 expungements already performed, Foxx said on December 11th:
“Today, we made history and took the first step in the single largest and most equitable piece of criminal justice reform Illinois has ever seen. As prosecutors who implemented these convictions, we must own our role in the harm they have caused – particularly in communities of color – and play our part in reversing them. Clearing records is not only a critical part of righting the wrongs of the failed war on drugs, but an intentional step to give people the chance to move forward, which benefits all of our communities.”
The State Attorney’s Office is also partnering with a non-profit called Code for America to process the records quickly – a service they’re providing for free. Code for America has been around since 2009, and describes itself as a “non-partisan, non-political organization” that addresses the “widening gap between public and private sectors in their effective use of technology and design.”
The CCSAO says the partnership and the expedition of the expungements allows the Office to “focus more of its limited resources on the drivers of violent crime.” There are faster ways to get the offense vacated if need be. The State Attorney’s Office explains, you can file a petition with the Clerk of Court by filling out an application and attaching a copy of your Record of Arrests and Prosecutions (RAP sheet), which you can get from the Police Department or other agency that arrested you. Cook County covers Chicago and has a population of about 5.2 million.
The State Attorney’s Office in Cook County is the second-largest in the nation (following Los Angeles County), with about 800 employees on staff. The Office handles about 19,000 petitions for convictions relief each and every year; that averages out to about 1,500 each month. At the start of the new year, they’ll have a bit more on their plate. Kimberly Foxx has served as the State Attorney since December 1, 2016, after spending twelve years as Assistant State Attorney.
This isn’t her first move toward her goal to create a “fairer, more forward-thinking agency focused on rebuilding the public trust, promoting transparency, and being proactive in making all communities safe” as she promises on the office’s website. In just the past two years, Foxx has raised the threshold for retail theft to $1000 before it’s considered a felony, and has declined to prosecute misdemeanor traffic offenders who fail to pay fines or tickets.
Foxx’s view on cannabis convictions is in-line with Illinois’ Governor – both feel cannabis convictions have plagued low-income communities for decades, and want to be a part of the change. The Governor hasn’t said whether other counties will try to do the same as Cook County, and expunge cannabis-related offenses.
“The time for justice is now, especially for communities of color who have long been disproportionately impacted by low-level cannabis convictions and the failed war on drugs. We look forward to continuing our efforts to ensure the broadest relief possible under this revolutionary law,” said Foxx in a statement.
Governor J.B. Pritzker signed a bill to officially legalize recreational cannabis in June 2019. On the day of the 1,000 expungements, Pritzker said, “Statewide, hundreds of thousands of Illinoisans are held back by their low-level cannabis-related records, a burden disproportionately shouldered by communities of color. And hundreds of thousands of others have had to watch their friends and loved ones struggle because of an arrest or conviction they got for something that will be legal starting on January 1st… We will never be able to fully remedy the depth of that unfairness and the damage it visited upon so many families. But we can govern our state with the courage to admit the mistakes of our past—and the decency to correct the record and set a better path forward.”
\If you have questions about the new law or the process of vacating criminal offenses, you can reach out to the Cook County State Attorney’s Office at SAO.Police@cookcountyil.gov. Once the criminal offense is officially removed from your record, you’ll receive a confirmation letter in the mail. You can update your address here.