FILE - recreational marijuana, cannabis

A ranking member of the Illinois Senate has picked up a bill that would allow people to clear low-level marijuana convictions from their record with permission from a judge.

Lawmakers decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana in 2016. When the law changed, possession of up to 10 grams of marijuana in Illinois became a civil matter rather than a criminal one. The 2016 change didn't address those who had already been convicted of the crime. 

Under the bill promoted up by Assistant Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford on Friday, a petitioner could ask a circuit judge to expunge the record of a conviction or plea of guilty for an offense from before July 29, 2016, if three years or more have passed since the petitioner has completed their sentence.

“As the conversation about legalizing recreational marijuana continues to gain traction, it would be irresponsible of legislators to overlook the damage over-criminalization has caused,” Lightford, D-Maywood, said. “This measure is about helping nonviolent offenders rehabilitate and have a better chance of getting a job.”

Lightford will have to get the bill through the Senate and get it to Gov. Bruce Rauner’s desk next month, or the process will have to start anew in the 101st General Assembly.

State Rep. La Shawn Ford, who initially sponsored the bill, said that expunging the low-level conviction would allow people to once again tell prospective employers that they’ve got a clean record.

“We have to make sure everyone in Illinois is employable and you start by making sure people who have minor offenses like this on their records are able to get those expunged,” Ford, D-Chicago, said.

The Illinois Sheriffs' Association has said it opposes the measure. A message left for the group on Friday wasn't immediately returned.

According to a 2013 report from the American Civil Liberties Union, African-Americans in Illinois are more than 7 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.

“We need fairness and equity in the process,” Ford said. “This is just the first step in ensuring that this ‘war on drugs’ that we’ve been fighting that has disproportionately affected black and brown people in the city of Chicago, is fair.”

Ford, who is running for mayor of Chicago, plans to petition every state’s attorney in Illinois to throw out all pending low-level marijuana charges if this bill becomes law.

The city of San Francisco is in the process of clearing all marijuana convictions there dating back to 1975, a move that could result in the clearing of an estimated 3,000 misdemeanors and the possible reduction of an estimated 5,000 felonies to lower charges.  

Reporter

Cole Lauterbach reports on Illinois government and statewide issues for INN. Lauterbach has managed and produced shows for news/talk radio stations in both Bloomington/Normal and Peoria, and created award-winning programs for Comcast SportsNet Chicago.

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