CHICAGO — The top prosecutor in Illinois’ largest county on Wednesday filed motions to vacate more than 1,000 low-level marijuana convictions, kicking off the process of clearing tens of thousands of convictions.
Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s motions are the first step in a plan to expunge convictions for possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana, then permanently remove them from criminal records. Recreational marijuana will be legal in Illinois starting Jan. 1.
Foxx presented the first of the petitions to Chief Judge Timothy Evans in a court on the Chicago's Southwest Side. Evans granted the request to expunge the convictions from court records.
"Today, we made history and took the first step in the single largest and most equitable piece of criminal justice reform Illinois has ever seen," Foxx said in a statement. The effort to expunge records in minor marijuana cases is required by the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act.
Technology developed by a non-profit organization called Code For America is already being used elsewhere, most notably in California, to clear thousands of convictions. Foxx's office will use the same technology to evaluate eligibility and remove minor marijuana convictions from people's records at no cost to them and, in many cases, without their knowledge. The defendants will be notified by the court clerk’s office via email or by a letter that the convictions have been expunged.
The people whose cases are being expunged include those who were convicted of misdemeanours, or Class 4 felonies, the lowest category of felony in Illinois. Anyone convicted of possessing more than 30 grams must apply individually if they want to have their records expunged.
Foxx’s appearance at a courthouse where the vast majority of criminal defendants are black or Hispanic underlines the intention of the law’s architects and Foxx herself: to help minority communities that have been hit hardest by what Foxx called the "failed war on drugs." She touched on that topic, saying prosecutors must do their part to reverse the harm that the laws have caused, particularly to minorities.
"Clearing records is not only a critical part of righting the wrongs of the failed war on drugs, but an intentional step to give people the chance to move forward, which benefits all of our communities," she said.
The effort — sure to be popular in the county’s minority communities — comes at a critical time for Foxx. She is running for re-election against an increasingly crowded field of candidates who will almost certainly echo criticism already levelled at Foxx about how she and her office handled the investigation of Jussie Smollett. The former "Empire" actor reported that he was a victim of a racist and homophobic attack last January.
After communicating with a relative of Smollett, Foxx recused herself from his case. Her office charged the actor with staging the attack then abruptly dropping the charges. Now, a special prosecutor is investigating the decision to drop the charges.