Code for America's pot-conviction clearance program heads to Illinois

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A software tool that has expunged more than 65,000 low-level marijuana convictions in California is making its way to Cook County, Illinois, with the goal of overturning tens of thousands similar records in the United States’ second-biggest county.

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said Tuesday that her office will begin to use the tool, Clear My Record, to automatically overturn the convictions of people found guilty of possession of small amounts of cannabis, following Illinois’ recent legalization of recreational marijuana. In addition to creating a taxed-and-regulated retail market similar to those already in place in states like California and Massachusetts, the law, which Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed in June, resulted in the automatic expungement of arrest records for possession of less than 30 grams. At the time of signing, Pritzker said he would also pardon all convictions for possession up to that amount.

But the process of actually expunging those records will require sifting through decades’ worth of information, Foxx said, creating a use for the Clear My Record program. The tool, which was developed by the civic-technology nonprofit Code for America, is capable of analyzing thousands of records at a time to determine if they qualify for expungement under the new statute. It was first tested in April 2018 in San Francisco, where it identified an initial set of 8,000 records eligible to be overturned under California’s marijuana legalization, and has since expanded to Los Angeles and Sacramento counties, where more than 60,000 additional records have been cleared.

During a press conference in Chicago, Foxx said the use of Clear My Record would help her office clear people arrested or convicted for actions that are no longer illegal.

“As 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,” she said. “It is prosecutors who have to be at the table to make sure we are providing relief.”

Statewide, Illinois officials estimate there are more than 770,000 cannabis possession records eligible to be overturned under the legalization law, with the “lion’s share” being located in Cook County, home to more than 5.2 million residents. But some records, including many from before 2000, have not been digitized.

Illinois is the 11th state to legalize recreational marijuana use since 2012. Yet the overturning of low-level possession convictions has not always matched that pace, said Code for America founder Jennifer Pahlka.

“We need this relief to happen at much greater speed and much greater scale than the justice system has been able to provide,” she said while standing alongside Foxx. “The justice system needs to be updated for the digital age.”

Pahlka said Clear My Record is capable of processing up to 10,000 records per minute, and that antiquated court records should not create a barrier to clearing eligible records once Foxx’s office does the data entry.

“You ask, aren’t those systems outdated, hard for modern technologists to work with it?” she told reporters. “The answer is, it’s fine.”

The process will still take several years — Illinois’ pot legalization law gives the state until January 2025 to clear records from before 2000 — but Foxx said the automatic clearances will reach far more people than before the law was passed. Once a person’s record is overturned, Cook County will send a notice to that individual’s last known address.

Previously, people seeking to have marijuana possession charges removed from their records had to file petitions in court, which Foxx called a costly and onerous process that only 3 to 5 percent of eligible people pursued.

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Code for America, Cook County, Jennifer Pahlka, Kim Foxx, marijuana
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