At a news conference on Tuesday, law enforcement officials from Illinois’ Cook County announced that they would be collaborating with Code For America to initiate expungement proceedings for possession charges of up to 30 grams of cannabis.
Here’s a quote from the announcement courtesy Cook County State Attorney Kim Foxx, which we hope is heard ‘round the world:
“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. 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.”
Illinois legalized recreational marijuana two months ago, making it the first state in the US to regulate adult-use cannabis via the legislative process rather than voter referendum. The law will take effect on January 1, and officials are working to make sure that the legal system is in order for that date.
When he signed the bill into effect, Governor J.B. Pritzker said it would automatically expunge and pardon the records of 800,000 state residents. That part was particularly important as police in Illinois and particularly Chicago (which is located in Cook County) have come under fire for their demonstrably racist cannabis policing tactics.
Low level cannabis convictions can prevent individuals from landing employment and qualifying for public housing.
Code For America has also played a role in expediting cannabis expungements in San Francisco, whose DA announced that it would collaborate with the organization in the identification of over 9,000 cases. The group has developed a program that can gather cases relating to cannabis charges that are no longer crimes under recent legalization laws.
The program is a big help to county governments that have struggled over the task of sifting through criminal records. Notably, though, the Code For America program is of little use when it comes to charges that took place before digitization. As the Chicago Tribune notes, in the 1960s, a person found with a single joint on their person could get a felony and mandatory prison sentence. (In the ‘70s, that was reduced to misdemeanor charge, a year in jail, and a $1,000 fine.)
Months after the beginning of the San Francisco project, California’s Los Angeles and San Joaquin counties decided to follow suit with Code For America, saying the collaboration had the potential to reduce or clear more than 54,000 cannabis convictions. To date, 14 California counties have started working with Code For America’s Clear My Record project, which offers online resources for people who wish to get cannabis-related offenses out of their lives.
In Cook County, expungements won’t require any work on the part of the affected individuals, who will get a letter saying their charges have been expunged.
The first challenge will be getting the conviction data into the correct format to be dealt with by the program. After that, “Literally, you will be clearing out hundreds and hundreds of records per minute,” says Foxx.
Mind you, even “automatic” expungements are, sadly, not a quick fix. County officials say Code For America’s work should be done by 2021.