Cook County, Code for America aim to speed up marijuana expungement as legalization nears

Kim Foxx announced a partnership with the nonprofit to automate the process for clearing minor pot convictions.

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Photo by David Eads

Jennifer Pahlka, executive director of Code for America, and Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx announce a partnership to clear tens of thousands of minor pot convictions as recreational marijuana will be legalized across the state in 2020.

Three months ahead of the legalization of marijuana in Illinois, the Cook County State’s Attorney Office announced a partnership aimed at streamlining the process of clearing  convictions for pot possession.

The project would help clear tens of thousands of convictions in Cook County, State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said at a press conference Tuesday. Governor J.B. Pritzker said that marijuana legalization will give “hundreds of thousands of people a chance at a better life” when the bill was passed and policy advocates have claimed the bill’s equity provisions could extend to as many as  770,000 people.

“Our current justice system was not designed in the digital age … so we needed to partner with someone who had the incredible technology and the capacity for innovation to allow us to do that,” she said. 

The office is partnering with California-based Code for America, whose Clear My Record program has dismissed or sealed more than 75,000 convictions since its start there in 2016. 

According to Code for America, the first version of the Clear My Record program helped more than 8,000 people with records fill out their expungement paperwork and connect with public defenders in 14 California counties. In 2018, Code for America piloted an automatic version of the project in California that uses optical character recognition to extract data from case files and determine eligibility.

“There’s many steps that an individual would have to persist through. Filing paperwork that’s not clear. Asking questions you may not know the answer to. It’s confusing. You’ve got to mail things in and get them back … all to get relief the law has already provided for you,” said Jennifer Pahlka, executive director of Code for America.

The code and algorithms that will be used in Cook County will be made available for the public to inspect, Pahlka said, but offered no further details.

The program is fully funded by Code for America and their donors. Foxx said the program will not use the state’s attorney’s staff resources, but did not mention material or administrative costs like mailing.

“The difference in our relationship here than in California is we’re doing it before the bill takes effect,” said Foxx, adding this is the first time the program is being done “proactively.”

The clearance process was part of the law signed in June legalizing recreational marijuana, which allows county state’s attorneys access to a list of eligible convictions for review, if they opt in, according to the release.

“There’s prosecutors who were part of the war on drugs. We were part of a larger ecosystem who believed that in the interest of public safety that these were convictions that were necessary to gain. In the benefit of hindsight and looking at the impact of the war on drugs, it is also prosecutors who have to be at the table to ensure we’re righting the wrongs of the past,” Foxx said.

According to the law, all convictions, arrests, charges and probations for marijuana offenses for less than 30 grams of marijuana and older than a year are eligible to be expunged. Once a record is expunged, a notice will be sent to the person’s last known address. Residents can update their address by contacting the Clerk of the Circuit Court, the release said.

Foxx would not give a specific date for the project launch, but said cases filed most recently will be expunged first because older cases are still being digitized. The program will combine and reconcile criminal history data from multiple agencies, including the Illinois State Police and the Cook County Clerk.

According to a statement from Foxx’s office, cases filed between January 2013 and January 2020, will be expunged by Jan. 2021. Cases filed between January 2000 and December 31, 2012, will be expunged by Jan. 2023. Cases filed before January 2000, will be expunged by Jan. 2025.