700,000 — that's the number of low-level cannabis records officials say could be wiped out under a piece of Illinois’ new marijuana law that aims to reduce the effects of the war on drugs.
But how long will expungement take? And what’s the state doing to make sure it’s equitable across all counties?
That's what was on Lindsey Baumgartner's mind when she submitted her question about legal weed to WBEZ. (You can also submit a question here.)
The answers to Baumgartner's questions are complicated. Some records will be expunged automatically. Others will go through a review process involving multiple state and local entities. And how long any of that takes depends on, in part, where you live. We've outlined some of the possible outcomes — and what it takes to get there.
If you have an arrest on your record for handling 30 grams or less of weed, but you were never convicted.
Under the law, you don’t have to do anything to have your record expunged if you’ve been arrested for carrying a little less than an ounce of weed. The Illinois State Police will expunge it automatically. That means your weed record will no longer show up on background checks or be accessible to law enforcement. But the process could take a while — up to six years.
Here’s the legally mandated deadlines:
- Records between 2013-present, expunged before Jan. 1, 2021
- Records between 2000-2013, expunged before Jan. 1, 2023
- Records before 2000, expunged before Jan. 1, 2025
The Illinois State Police, which is handling arrest expungements internally, anticipates getting automatic arrest expungements done “well before” the 2025 deadline.
You’ll get a notice in the mail when your arrest is officially expunged, but that notification will go to the last address listed with the court clerk in the county where the criminal case occurred. You can call that county clerk to update your address.
Automatic expungement — kind of
If you’ve been convicted on a cannabis-related crime involving 30 grams or less of weed and it wasn’t connected with a violent offense.
This part of the process, and the time it takes, may differ if you live in Cook County. State's Attorney Kim Foxx has announced she'll veer from the state's process to ensure "the broadest amount of relief possible for people who have these convictions."
How the state is doing it
The state will send your record through five different government entities before it’s expunged (more detail on that in the graphic below).
State officials did not give estimates on how long that process would take. Illinois State Police officials said that’s because this is an entirely new process. Legal advocates say the standard expungement process can take up to a year or more.
ISP says it has sent the bulk of the convictions it has on file — 106,000 records — to the Prisoner Review Board, which will recommend pardons for eligible convictions. A pardon means the state forgives you for a crime and paves the way for your record to be expunged.
You’ll get a notice in the mail when your conviction is officially expunged, but again, that notification will go to the last address listed with the court clerk in the county where the criminal case occurred.
How Cook County is doing it
Cook County is bypassing a lot of the process outlined above by going straight to a judge with a motion to vacate cannabis convictions. A motion to vacate makes it as if the crime never happened and paves the way for the records of the arrest and the crime to be expunged.
Cook County is also partnering with a data firm, Code for America, to streamline and expedite the process further. Code for America uses a computer program to analyze conviction data and to populate forms to vacate those convictions.
Foxx says Code for America is currently working with 18,000 conviction records her office received from ISP.
You do not qualify for automatic expungement, but here’s what you can do
If you’ve been convicted of a crime relating to 30-500 grams of weed, you can file a petition to have your record expunged. Legal aid groups are providing free legal help in the process. There’s Cabrini Green Legal Aid in the Chicago area, Prairie State Legal Services in northern Illinois or Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation in southern Illinois. You can also contact the circuit court clerk’s office in the county where the record was created.
What you’ll need: your rap sheet from the local law enforcement agency where the criminal record occurred — that could include fingerprinting or filing fees.
A legal aid group can help you file a petition for expungement, which could cost you. It’s about $160 to file for expungement in Cook County, though some legal aid groups or nonprofits may be able to help with the fee.
Here’s a step-by-step process Cabrini Green Legal Aid recommends.
If you’ve been convicted of a crime related to more than 500 grams of weed, you can apply to have your record sealed. This isn’t new to the law — you’ve always been able to submit a petition in court to have your record sealed. If approved, your conviction will no longer be public record, though it will still show up on fingerprint background checks. It’s also accessible by law enforcement. You can contact one of the legal aid groups above for more information.
Mariah Woelfel is a reporter at WBEZ. You can follow her on Twitter @MariahWoelfel.
Illustrations are by WBEZ's interactive producer Paula Friedrich. You can follow her on Twitter @pauliebe.