Illinois residents with marijuana convictions have a new starting point toward getting their records wiped clean, and State Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth is helping make sure downstate residents are aware of the opportunity.
Gordon-Booth, D-Peoria, participated in Thursday’s launch announcement for New Leaf Illinois, an alliance providing free legal services to assist people in expunging or sealing cannabis convictions. She said including the program as part of the state’s cannabis legalization law was imperative.
“If we were going to legalize this product, we were ensuring that we were righting the wrongs of the failed war on drugs, and that we were creating pathways for people not only to get access into the industry, but also to be able to just simply clear their records and not have that dark cloud following them every time they have to go and fill out an application,” she said.
Gordon-Booth said the process of clearing those records is costly, cumbersome and difficult to navigate, and that minority groups have been disproportionately impacted by enforcement of marijuana possession and consumption laws and the stain of convictions creating barriers to employment and housing.
“Particularly Black communities and Brown communities are prevented from being able to move their lives forward because of lack of access to being able to bring on a lawyer at $5,000 or sometimes $10,000 on a retainer to be able to free them of those collateral consequences,” she said.
New Leaf Illinois combines the resources of 20 non-profit organizations across the state to provide legal representation and other advisory services, funded by grants set up through the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act (CRTA) and administered by the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation.
The primary downstate non-profits participating in New Leaf Illinois are Prairie State Legal Services and Land of Lincoln Legal Aid.
“I was very tuned in to the issue of what it may look like outside of Cook County, to be able to create a pathway for people to get expungements,” said Gordon-Booth. “We needed to make sure that there was going to be that same level of advocacy for people statewide.”
Gordon-Booth was joined on Thursday’s Zoom media conference by fellow State Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, Illinois Equal Justice League board member Gray Mateo-Harris, and Cabrini Green Legal Aid lawyer Brandon Williams. Cassidy and Gordon-Booth were among the key advocates for the legislation that legalized recreational cannabis.
“Because of the work that both of us have done around this issue for so long, what we were keenly aware of as we created this program was that a cannabis charge could actually be the beginning of a snowball effect on someone's record,” said Cassidy, adding that about 770,000 criminal records could be eligible for expungement.
“Even though cannabis is now legal, these individuals may have a criminal record that could make it harder for them to actually get a job and advance their education or even be able to rent an apartment,” added Mateo-Harris. “It is time to help those who were previously punished or impacted by the criminalization of cannabis restore their records.”
Residents interested in registering for the assistance can do so at newleafillinois.org.
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