Illinois Expunges Records of Nearly Half a Million Marijuana Arrests
Mass Expungements With Legalization & Decriminalization
36 states, the District of Columbia, and three territories have now legalized the use of marijuana for either medicinal or recreational use including the close states of Michigan, Ohio and Missouri. Along with legalization and decriminalization, many states have begun the mass-expungement of criminal records involving non-violent marijuana offenses.
To date, more than a dozen states have enacted expungement laws. Many of the enacted laws cover relatively small offenses. However, some states have broader-based reforms, eradicating petition requirements, and exacting justice for more serious (but still non-violent) cannabis cases.
Illinois officials recently announced the state was joining the ranks of other forward-thinking, 420-friendly states by automatically expunging marijuana-related arrest records of almost half a million people.
Illinois expunges half a million cannabis arrests
In the first week of 2021, hundreds of thousands of individuals residing in Illinois have a reason to celebrate as Gov. J.B. Pritzker made a landmark announcement that the state is effectively expunging and forgiving almost 500,000 marijuana-related arrests. The Governor himself pardoned 9,210 low-level marijuana convictions and Illinois State Police expunged more than 492,000 non-felony cannabis arrest records.
Illinois legalized the sale of marijuana in 2020 with the intent of reducing the impact of the war on drugs on minorities who are routinely, disproportionately arrested for marijuana possession. “We will never be able to fully remedy the depth of that damage,” Pritzker said. “But we can govern with the courage to admit the mistakes of our past and the decency to set a better path forward.”
The newly-mandated law required 47,000 marijuana arrest records and convictions handed out between 2013 and 2019 to be expunged by January 1, 2025. However, officials announced that they are well ahead of the deadline with a mind-boggling 492,129 expungements. At this time arrest records from DuPage, Kane, Knox, Lake, McHenry, McLean, Peoria, Rock Island, Will, and Winnebago counties have been expunged.
Several U.S states expunging marijuana arrest and conviction records
Colorado and Washington were the first states to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012. The legalization trend has now spread to 11 states, the District of Columbia, and the Northern Mariana Islands. In accordance with legalization, legislation enabling the pardoning and expunging of minor cannabis offenses has also been enacted in many states.
Some of the more progressive states such as California, New Hampshire, Oregon, and Maryland have initiated record-clearing legislation that would automatically erase minor cannabis offenses.
Sadly, cannabis convictions often bring “collateral consequences” such as exclusion from government benefits or restrictions on professional licensing. Several states are addressing this issue head-on. Recently, in an attempt to protect individuals with cannabis records, Vermont lawmakers passed the Uniform Collateral Consequences of Conviction Act. This Act ensures that the rights of past cannabis offenders will not be denied.
POTUS calls for nationwide expungement of marijuana arrests
President-elect Joe Biden is painfully aware of the dire implications of marijuana arrests and their negative impact on minorities. The systemic rampant racism extends to whole communities of color where prior convictions often create a barrier to economic opportunity.
In a campaign speech regarding the economy and racial equity, Biden stated that “getting caught for smoking marijuana when you’re young surely shouldn’t deny you the rest of your life, being able to have a good-paying job or a career or a loan or an ability to rent an apartment.” Biden also proposed federal assistance for states interested in an automated expungement process for past, non-violent marijuana convictions.
“Right now, that criminal record is the weight that holds back too many people of color, and many whites as well,” he said, adding that the process of getting those records sealed or expunged can be “complicated and costly in the states where the records are kept.”
Although Biden still opposes nationwide legalization he is in favor of federal decriminalization. Biden understands the socio-economic impact of past cannabis convictions and believes that more states need to “recognize the significant costs to their economy when people with certain non-violent criminal records can’t fully contribute to their full talents and capacity.”
However, says Biden, “even when the states want to give that person a second chance and seal or expunge a certain non-violent criminal record, the record keeping-systems are so outdated, they don’t know how to do it.”
“Under my plan, if a state decides it wants to implement an automated system for the sealing and expunging of certain nonviolent criminal records, if a state chooses to do that, the federal government will help put together the process and allow them the money to be able to know how to organize to do that.”
Ironically, Biden helped craft some of the punitive anti-drug laws that ultimately sent millions of Americans to prison for various marijuana charges. Biden seems to have softened his stance on cannabis in recent years.
Expungement isn’t always easy
While arrest expungements are oftentimes relatively simple, conviction expungements can be extremely complicated and costly, as each jurisdiction has its own process for clearing records. As a result, countless individuals still have criminal records for simple marijuana possession hanging over their heads.
Many recipients of these criminal records are not aware of their eligibility for expungement. And many have no idea where to start or don’t have the means to pay for whatever costs might be involved.
The good news is that nationwide expungement movements are growing exponentially and barriers are being dismantled. Back in 2018, an advocacy group formed with the goal of assisting people with marijuana possession records launched an annual event called National Expungement Week (NEW).
And in mid-December 2020, newly appointed congresswoman Nikema Williams who filled the seat of the late Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) filed a bill to put pressure on state and local governments to expunge all federal records for non-violent cannabis convictions.
Not surprisingly, the results of a recent YouGov poll indicated that seven out of ten Americans are in favor of the marijuana arrest and conviction expungements. As a result of the expungement movement, 2021 may prove to not only be a banner year for marijuana legalization but also for the exoneration of millions whose futures have been tainted by marijuana arrests and convictions.