In Illinois, the last day of 2019 was a happy one for many. On December 31, only hours before recreational cannabis would be made legally available in the state, Democratic Governor J.B. Pritzker pardoned more than 11,000 people. All of them had been convicted, in some form or another, of a low-level charge for pot. It was that easy. The crimes would soon be removed from their records. They would not show up on background checks. They could not be considered in hiring decisions. These Illinois residents didn't have to do anything.
"We are ending the 50-year-long war on cannabis," Pritzker said in a statement announcing the December pardons, according to the Associated Press. "We are restoring rights to many tens of thousands of Illinoisans. We are bringing regulation and safety to a previously unsafe and illegal market. And we are creating a new industry that puts equity at its very core."
Last June, Pritzker had made good on a major campaign promise and signed a bill legalizing recreational weed. Although Illinois was the 11th state to grant legalization, it was among the first to do so through legislation, not a vote at the ballot box, and largely framed the new law around righting social-justice wrongs. East Coast states—especially New York and New Jersey—have so far struggled to do this. A key part of the Illinois bill was the relative ease with which records could be expunged.
"When marijuana law reform comes up now, social justice and expungement has to be taken on," said Sam Kamin, a professor of marijuana law and policy at the University of Denver. "That wasn't true in 2012, when the first states were legalizing pot for recreational purposes. Illinois is probably something of a model now."
"The policy in Illinois makes the most sense," echoed Robert Solomon, a clinical professor of law at the University of California, Irvine, and the co-chair of the college's Center for the Study of Cannabis.
However, the logistics of expungement in Illinois are not entirely so simple for everybody. The primary thing to understand, first off, is the difference between a "pardon" and "expungement." A pardon from the governor forgives you of your crime but does not erase it from your record; an expungement does the erasing. A pardon, though, in some cases, leads to eventual expungement.
Here’s what you need to know if you have a cannabis-related crime on your record in Illinois.
If you were arrested for handling 30 grams or less of cannabis, you get an automatic expungement
If you were arrested, but not convicted, of possessing 30 grams or less of cannabis, you qualify for automatic expungement—which requires you to do very little other than wait around for the Illinois State Police to comb through department files. (You do not qualify, however, if this crime was tied to a violent offense.) Among other mandated deadlines and timeframes, there is a quick schedule to speed up the procedure:
- If your record was created on or after January 1, 2013, and before January 1, 2020, it should be already expunged already. (It was set to be so before January 1, 2020.)
- If your record was created either before January 1, 2013, or on or after January 1, 2020, it should be expunged by January 1, 2023.
- If your record was created before January 1, 2000, it should be expunged by January 1, 2025.
In the end, you'll get notification in the mail, sent to your last known address (you can update this information with the court clerk).
Automatic expungement places the burden not on you but on the government—and was therefore the portion of the bill most heralded by cannabis-reform advocates.
If you were convicted of handling 30 grams or less of cannabis, you still get an automatic expungement, but it will take longer
If you were convicted of possessing 30 grams or less of cannabis, and if that crime was not tied to any sort of other violent offense, the journey is slightly more bureaucratic, even if it remains pretty hands-off on your end. Again, you'll have to be patient. Your record will essentially have to pass through five sections of the government in a multi-step process: A state police officer will search through an extensive database and determine which records can be expunged under the new law; a prisoner review board will determine which should be forwarded for a pardon by the governor; the governor then approves or dismisses the pardon; the state's attorney general gets the chance to petition that; and, finally, the police can expunge. You'll then be informed by mail.
The only exception to this is in Cook County, where Chicago is located. There, it might go a bit faster, as the state's attorney office can skip many of those steps and bring the records straight to a judge.
If you were convicted of handling 30 to 500 grams of cannabis, you'll have to file a petition for expungement
This is where things can get much more taxing. You'll probably need to hire a lawyer, or solicit the help of legal aid services in the state. (There are plenty of resources.) The basic takeaway, though, is that this is not automatic: You'll have to spend time obtaining legal advice and submitting the paperwork for your petition, which a court will ultimately decide. It is not a guarantee.
If you were convicted of handling more than 500 grams of cannabis, you have the option to seal your record
This isn't new, as NPR notes. But, in this case, you can petition the court to seal your record—which means that it would no longer be public record, but available to law enforcement and during fingerprint background checks.
Also, a helpful reminder: Keep an eye on employment laws. They're trickier, and vary from state to state. In Illinois, you can still be fired from your job if you test positive for cannabis, and some companies are scrambling to amend their policies or have more concrete ones in effect.
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