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Clearing the Record: Peoria residents with marijuana convictions and arrests wait for records to be expunged

PEORIA (HOI) – It will be legal for Illinois residents to possess up to 30 grams of marijuana on January 1, 2020. As a new industry is born in the state, there are around 770,000 people who have criminal records for possessing the same amount that’s about to be legal.

Illinois is the 11th state to lessen the punishment for the still-federally-outlawed substance. Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth (D, Peoria) says she and her colleagues put people who were affected by previous marijuana laws at the center of the legalization effort.

“It was a necessity if adult use legalization was ever going to be actualizied, I knew that extensive expungement had to be a part of it or it wasn’t worth doing,” Gordon-Booth said.

The actual automatic expungement does not exactly have a timeline, and the execution of it is still being tweaked.

Marcus Albert works at Quest Charter Academy through the Elite Youth Outreach program. As a compliance officer, he works with kids to give them support. He says he’s honest with them about his story, and his road to this job was not smooth.

Albert played high school basketball for Peoria Central in the early 1990’s before playing college ball at Howard Community College and then at the University of Missouri St Louis. After he graduated he came back to Peoria and tried to start his life.

One night in August 2002, he met up with some friends.

“Out one night just partying with my guys and we get pulled over and I had marijuana in my pocket,” he said. He was charged with cannabis possession between 10-30 grams, a class A misdemeanor. He was sentenced to court supervision, which eventually turned into 18 months probation in 2005.

Fourteen years later, he says this misdemeanor, which still shows up on his record, is denying him opportunities.

“I brought upon myself being caught with marijuana,” he says. “I knew was against the law, but was it worth 15 years of my life? Was it worth denying me an opportunity to redeem myself? It’s been plaguing me forever.”

Albert says As the years went by the conviction kept dogging him as he looked for jobs. Each rejection added to the weight of the problem in his head.

“I was thinking ‘they’re probably going to turn me down for that’ and that’s what kept happening for years and years and years and years,” he said. “Basically what happened was I started to lose confidence that I could walk into a place of employment and attain a job.”

Rep. Gordon-Booth says she’s seen countless cases like Albert’s. “Not only have they been calcified in poverty, but their children and families have been calcified in poverty,” she said. “They have not been able to pursue the American dream because they had a joint. That’s literally what we’re talking about here.”

If not for a personal connection with Carl Cannon, who runs the Elite Youth Outreach program, Albert wonders if he would have been able to get a job at all.

“[People] say, ‘why don’t you get a job?’ and we want to but, ‘oh, I don’t know sir, looks like you got caught with some marijuana in 2004 or 2002.'” Albert laments. “Come on man, that’s not even me anymore.”

In short, automatic expungements are in order for people with marijuana convictions involving 30 grams or less, but there are exceptions. There can’t be a violent crime associated with the case. Anyone 18-or-under at the time who gave cannabis to someone more than three years younger than themselves is also ineligible.

People with convictions up to 500 grams may petition for their case to be expunged, but it will not be automatic. The state suggests pairing with an organization like Prairie Legal Services to see if your case could be eligible.

The actual expungement process is beurocratic, and differs downstate as opposed to Chicago. Illinois State Police is charged with finding all of the eligible convictions and arrest records. Convictions go to the prison review board and then to the Governor to be pardoned and sealed. ISP tells us they have already found some 116,000 convictions and sent them off, but there’s no timeline on when the next step will be complete.

Arrest records are more complicated, and ISP has until 2025 in some cases to finish their leg of the journey. After that, it’s up to county courts to get rid of the records.

It also prioritizes newer cases as opposed to older ones. A follow-up question sent to Rep. Gordon-Booth about this was not returned. A representative from ISP said older cases are no more difficult to process than newer ones.

“Why should the people that’s had it on their record the longest wait and the people who hadn’t had it on there that long go first?” Albert asks.

This process is still in flux. Up until Thursday, there was no formal directive that compelled courts to let people know their records had been wiped. That was passed in the legislature as a technical amendment to the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act. They’re now obligated to reach out to people affected at their last known address, or electronically if possible.

Rep. Gordon-Booth reached out to an organization called Code for America out of California. They work with local governments to streamline their technology. She hopes they can come in and locate records quickly in Peoria, Lake, St Clair, Winnebago, and Champaign Counties. They already operate in Cook County.

She acknowledges this might not be a quick process. “The automatic expungement process is automatic for the individual,” she said. It is not automatic for the system.”

Bobby Oler @bobbyoler

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