Illinois County to Use Algorithm to Automatically Expunge Old Marijuana Convictions

Photo: Matilde Campodonico (AP)

With a statewide marijuana decriminalization ordinance set to take effect at the start of 2020, Cook County, Illinois is slated to automatically clear “tens of thousands of cannabis convictions” with the assistance of an algorithm, the Chicago Tribune reported on Wednesday. Cook County is the nation’s second most populous county as well as home to the nation’s third largest city, Chicago.

The Illinois Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act goes into effect on Jan. 1 and will decriminalize the possession of less than 30 grams (slightly over an ounce) of marijuana for those aged over 21, as well as create a process by which those convicted of possession of larger amounts up to 500 grams (about 17.6 ounces) can petition to have their records expunged of the charge. Expunged charges should no longer appear in background checks or law enforcement records. County prosecutors and California-based Code for America nonprofit have formed a partnership to use the nonprofit’s “Clear My Record technology” to automate the process of clearing the records of those convicted of possessing 30 grams or less, the Tribune wrote, which Code for America says will save staff resources and expedite processing time.

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Per the Tribune, State’s Attorney Kim Foxx told reporters at a Tuesday news conference, “It is prosecutors who were part of the war on drugs, we were part of a larger ecosystem that 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 that we are righting the wrongs of the past.”

Code for America founder and executive director Jennifer Pahlka told the paper that the process will come at no cost to the state and will be carried out without action needed on the part of the convicted persons. The biggest hurdle will be getting the records in a form that can be quickly processed by a machine, the Tribune wrote:

Code for America’s program will sift through state and county data to identify which records are eligible for the expungement, then complete paperwork for prosecutors to submit to judges, who can formally throw out the convictions.

... The county hopes to begin the automated process as soon as possible, even ahead of Jan. 1 when marijuana legalization takes effect. Foxx wants the automatic expungements to apply to as many convictions as far back as possible, though she acknowledged the process may be difficult for older, nondigitized records.

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“Marijuana cases that were charged along with other offenses” aren’t eligible to be run through the automated program and will have to go through a manual process, the Tribune wrote.

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón told the Tribune the when his office paired with Code for America in a pilot program similarly meant to clear marijuana convictions, the nonprofit processed roughly 8,000 of over 9,000 convictions that were expunged or downgraded from a felony to a misdemeanor. District attorneys in Los Angeles and San Joaquin counties are also working with Code for America to clear tens of thousands of convictions.

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Tom McKay

"... An upperclassman who had been researching terrorist groups online." - Washington Post