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How Cannabis Expungement Will Work In McLean County

Adrian Barr poses
Ryan Denham
Adrian Barr is the managing attorney for Prairie State Legal Services in Bloomington. His office is helping to educate people about the cannabis expungement process.

McLean County residents with minor cannabis convictions are expected to soon have their records wiped clean. But it’s unclear just how soon, and how many people will benefit.

Statewide, there are 116,000 minor cannabis conviction records that are eligible for a multistep expungement process, a key part of the legalization that began Jan. 1. State Police has already forwarded those cases to the state’s Prisoner Review Board, which will make a recommendation to the governor whether to grant a pardon authorizing expungement. State’s attorneys can object in select felony cases.

State’s Attorney Don Knapp and Circuit Clerk Don Everhart said they don’t know how many of the 116,000 cases are in McLean County. The Prisoner Review Board said a county-by-breakdown is not available. McLean County’s 172,800 residents are about 1.4% of the state’s population. With that rough estimate, 1.4% of 116,000 would be around 1,600 cases.

“Volume and expediency are the most significant questions,” Knapp told WGLT. “Should we immediately expect dozens, hundreds, or thousands of petitions to expunge records? We have an idea and an informed estimate but that is all. What effect the petitions have on immediate and long-term workflow or personnel allocation in (my) office generally all stems from volume and expediency.”

One factor that may depress the number of cases is that Illinois decriminalized low-level possession of marijuana in 2016.

“Since 2016 the volume of charges for what the Criminal Identification Act terms as a minor cannabis offense has dwindled,” Knapp said. “We expect that to lessen the number of expungements sought, with one caveat. The caveat being that (the new law) contemplates expungement of records that are decades old. While the expungement of recently charged cases may not be a large number, there may be numerous older cases.”

How Expungement Process Works

For those who were arrested but not convicted of a minor cannabis offense—for possessing or dealing 30 grams or less—the state will automatically expunge your record, in batches starting with the most recent cases. Arrests dating back to 2000 will be expunged by 2025.

Don Knapp
Credit Jeff Smudde / WGLT
McLean County State's Attorney Don Knapp.

For those with convictions—those 116,000 records—the process is lengthier. The Prisoner Review Board will make its recommendations to the governor. If granted, the Illinois attorney general will then file a petition in McLean County court to have the record expunged. The circuit clerk will then notify the person and give them copy of the expungement order.

“The unknown, again, is when all of this is going to occur,” Everhart said.

Notifications could be tricky if a person has changed addresses since the conviction.

“We can only use the addresses we have. It’s always up to the individual to keep the clerk up-to-date on their address,” Everhart said.

There is one additional step for those with felony convictions. The Prisoner Review Board is expected to begin sending state’s attorneys a list of those convictions in February, and prosecutors like Knapp can object to the expungement if they believe the conviction didn’t meet the criteria spelled out in the law, such as possessing cannabis during commission of a violent crime. The Prisoner Review Board will consider each objection during a “non-public hearing.”

Knapp said it’s impossible to know how many objections he might file. He expects to get the list in February or March.

“That is entirely dependent on the list provided by the Illinois State Police. I suspect they were relatively thorough in compiling the list of names to ensure that those on it meet the statutory criteria for expungement. Nevertheless, human error at various levels of the process might result in individual cases being identified which simply do not qualify for expungement.”

On Dec. 31, the day before legalization, Gov. JB Pritzker issued pardons for over 11,000 misdemeanor convictions—the first 9.5% of those 116,000. None of those were in McLean County.

Don’t Want To Wait?

Someone with a past cannabis conviction doesn’t necessarily have to wait until this quasi-automated expungement process plays out. They can file their own motions to vacate and expunge their record or get help to do so from a civil legal aid agency.

In Bloomington-Normal, that’s Prairie State Legal Services. Adrian Barr, Prairie State’s managing attorney in Bloomington, said his office is ready and willing to help. It may be a good fit for those with more serious convictions—cannabis offenses up to 500 grams—who don’t qualify for the automated process, he said. There are about 34,000 records in that situation.

“Because there’s no clear picture of how long the automatic processes will take, anyone who’s looking for a job this year or even next year would probably be well-served to start this process themselves if they think these minor cannabis offenses will be a barrier to their employment,” Barr said.

The cannabis cases will expand Prairie State’s existing expungement and record-sealing work, which began in 2018 and has already helped 79 people in McLean County seal or expunge 306 criminal records, Barr said. Those records are often the only thing standing in the way of a job or housing, he said.

“The stories you hear about people’s lives … they’re just transformed. They have these barriers they never thought they could remove to get a job as a (certified nursing assistant), or to get a full-time job or promotion,” Barr said. “People have been able to remove those barriers and get multiple job offers, and before the relief they weren’t getting any.”

If you have a cannabis conviction or arrest on your record and are willing to share your expungement story with WGLT, please contact us at news@wglt.org to be part of a future story.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.