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Cannabis criminal record relief: A Q&A with Katie Blakeman

Just a couple of weeks ago, Governor J.B. Pritzker announced the details of a much anticipated and expected bill to legalize cannabis in the state of Illinois. Champaign County Circuit Clerk Katie Blakeman has seen it coming, and has been a part of the process as considerations are made for those who have been convicted of marijuana-related offenses. 

She is a co-chair of the Illinois Association of Circuit Clerks, and was invited to be on the Criminal Justice Working Group to help inform legislators as they write their cannabis legalization bill. They were looking to her to be sure the law will expunge the records of people previously convicted for what could soon be a legal use of cannabis.

Smile Politely: In the past you’ve worked on expungement locally. Is that how you connected with these legislators?

Katie Blakeman: In this case it was because I served as the legislative co-chair for the Association of Circuit Clerks around the state. Because of my experience with criminal record relief, it made sense for me to serve and talk with legislators about record clearance. We as an association were excited to be at the table. In previous legislative sessions we’ve had to come and testify after a bill has been filed. We’re trying to help legislators understand that, “We understand what your legislative intent is, but this is what will happen procedurally if you do this.” We’re just thrilled to have been at the table to assist in getting the language right so that if this is what they want to accomplish with the legislation, we can make sure it’s done correctly and accomplishes what they want.

They have learned some lessons from other states that have enacted bills to legalize possession of cannabis recreationally. California learned the lesson that if they leave it up to the person who has a record to file a petition for record clearance, people don’t necessarily follow through because they don’t have the time or resources or don’t know how, and so they wanted to look at a way that would not be initiated by the person with the record, just to be more proactive.

In 2016 we had our first Expungement and Record Sealing Summit, and the model was based on a summit that I attended in Cook County. I was really inspired by what they did there, and I talked with Aaron Ammons who had interest in seeing what we could do in Champaign County. That’s an area of passion for him. When we decided to do something here, Carol Ammons’ office and Scott Bennett’s office were the first two partners that we had to work with. We also worked Cabrini Green Legal Aid, a legal aid organization in Chicago that really specializes in this kind of work.

Early on we knew that we wanted to make it truly free so there’s no economic barrier to participation. Participants meet with an attorney who explains their eligibility and prepares the petition, the circuit clerks’ office is on site, and they can file it that day. Sometimes if there’s a conviction they might need to wait a year to seal that record, but they will talk through that process with the volunteer attorneys. In addition to that, we have the Secretary of State’s office and our court liaison. They prepare a personalized plan for anyone who has a situation with a driver’s license that has been suspended or revoked. We like to have the mobile unit there so that if they’re already eligible, they can go ahead and get their driver’s license on site right away.

SP: Have people with cannabis convictions in the past been eligible for criminal record relief at these events?

Blakeman: They have been able to file for sealing. No convictions are eligible for expungement. Right now the law states that if you have been arrested and not charged, or have had charges dropped, or found not guilty, or on a court supervision, those cases are eligible for expungement. But convictions can be sealed. Most situations where a person has been convicted of cannabis possession can be sealed. With this new piece of legislation it would be eligible for expungement, which means it would be completely removed from the record. Sealing removes it from public view, but there are some entities that can view the record, like school districts or park districts that have a legal requirement to do criminal background checks. An expungement is a different effect.

SP: You’re looking at the consequences of legislation legalizing recreational cannabis. What are you showing legislators that will need to be done?

Blakeman: The sponsors were interested in making sure that any past conviction that would now be legal, like small possession with intent to deliver, that person would no longer have that hanging over their head. We were helping them understand the process and what it would take to truly accomplish that.

Prioritizing the electronic records is way to more speedily accomplish what they’re looking for, and then later working on the physical paper files. Those would have been older cases, like cases from the 70s or maybe the 80s. If [the law] didn’t include both electronic and physical records, it wouldn’t accomplish what they’re wanting it to.

And [we discussed] the timeline and how realistic it is to be done. The state’s attorney will have to review cases for eligibility. Let’s say a case was pled down from a gun charge, that may not be something the state’s attorney would want to see expunged; they may have an objection to that. They are likely going to be given a year under the proposed legislation to review those records. I think that’s a fair amount of time. It will be a considerable amount of work for the state’s attorneys office, and every circuit clerk will have to find all of the records and help prepare them for the judge to make a final order. The records are kept at both the state level and local level. That was something we were trying to help legislators understand; just removing the record from state police records is not going to accomplish what they want. Especially for misdemeanors, we wanted legislators to understand there are lots of those records are kept at the local level. If you’re wanting to expunge all of the records, you need to include the local, not just the state record.

SP: What will criminal record relief mean for those in Illinois with prior cannabis convictions?

Blakeman: At our summits we ask all of the participants what they hope to accomplish in clearing their criminal record, and overwhelming the response is employment. It’s either getting a job or getting a better job. Many people are underemployed and have the capacity to do something greater than what they’re doing, but their criminal record is holding them back. Even when they haven’t been convicted, even if the charges were dropped or they were found not guilty, it still shows up and employers don’t understand and use that as a reason not to hire someone.

People also talk about housing. Landlords will look at criminal records before deciding to rent to someone. Colleges and universities will look at criminal records in making admissions decisions, so education is an issue.

We’ve had participants who come and say they have a great job, they have a house, but they say, “It just bothers me that this is still there, and it was 20 years ago, something stupid that I did at 18 that is still hanging over me.”

SP: Who else is on the Criminal Justice Working Group in Illinois?

Blakeman: There were a lot of stakeholders in the group, and it included the state police, The States Attorneys Association, legislators from both the Democratic and Republican caucuses, representatives from the Police Chiefs Association, the Sherrifs Association, the Supreme Court probation, experts in the cannabis industry, Cabrini Green Legal Aid because they have so much experience with criminal record relief, and an organization called Code for America to find the most efficient way to accomplish the goals. It was chaired by Christian Mitchell, the Deputy Governor. It was really gratifying to see that many stakeholders involved in the process. We started meeting [in March]. A lot of work got done in a short amount of time.

SP: Has the Illinois Association of Circuit Clerks gotten into legislation like this in the past, helping legislators to see problems ahead of time?

Blakeman: Not so much in the past sessions. It’s taken us some time to get to this point. We’ve put a lot of effort into building relationships with legislators and helping them understand that we don’t want to just show up and testify in opposition to a bill. We had a bit of a reputation a few years ago for just saying no to a bill. We’ve spent the last few years building relationships with leadership in both houses, and helping them understand that we’re there to help and accomplish legislative intent with procedural accuracy. This session we’ve been at the table early on. With everything we’re looking at there’s nothing we’ve had to take an opposed stance. We were very grateful to be included from the very beginning so we could help them understand the impact.

SP: What concerns do you have about the rollout of cannabis legalization in Illinois?

Blakeman: As an organization we do not take policy positions. Personally, I know this the way that things are headed, so I’ve been really pleased with how the sponsors have been including stakeholders. They are really listening about things like how to determine impairment. If a person is driving under the influence of alcohol you have a breathalyzer, but there isn’t a roadside test for impairment from cannabis. There’s the sobriety test, but that isn’t really the same accuracy as a breathalyzer with alcohol. I think it’s important for young people to understand risks of any kind of substance they use, whether that’s alcohol or tobacco or prescription drugs, and if cannabis is legalized, then education on that, too. I think it needs to be all-inclusive for people to understand the risks. There’s an education piece included in the legislation as well, from what I understand.

You can read the full text of the proposed bill here. It should also be noted that Rep. Ammons recently expressed concern that the expungement process laid out in the bill doesn’t go far enough.

Photo from Champaign County Circuit Clerk Facebook page

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