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1,000 pot convictions tossed as Kim Foxx expunges records of marijuana busts

Foxx went to court Wednesday to vacate and expunge records of people caught up in the drug war — her first move to wipe the books clean after the state legalized recreational marijuana.

More than 1,000 pot convictions will soon be off the books in Cook County.

In a hearing Wednesday afternoon at the Leighton Criminal Court Building, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx stood before the circuit court’s chief judge and called for the vacation and expungement of 1,012 low-level, nonviolent convictions for possession of less than an ounce of pot.

The vast majority of the people who were granted relief at the hearing still don’t know it yet — but Foxx said they would be subsequently notified of the expungement of their cases by mail.

In the audience for the hearing were community activists, as well as Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who sat in the courtroom’s jury box, state “Cannabis Czar” Toi Hutchinson and state Rep. Kelly Cassidy (14th), who helped lead the way on legalization. Cook County Clerk Dorothy Brown served as the court clerk to Chief Judge Timothy Evans for the hearing.

With recreational marijuana set to become legal in the state in three weeks, officials called the mass expungement historic and said it demonstrated a key goal of the state’s legalization efforts — justice.

“As a prosecutor who has previously prosecuted these cases, we must own our role in the harm we have caused, particularly to communities of color and we must actively work to play our part in reversing those harms,” Foxx said.

The effect of the expungements will give people whose lives have been haunted by a simple pot bust and have long suffered the consequences a measure of justice and provide them with better opportunities for education, employment and housing, Foxx said.

Foxx personally read the first 100 names into the record one-by-one as Judge Evans signed the orders and handed them to Brown for a final stamp — each one sounding with a thud in the quiet courtroom as the hearing unfolded and the next name read.

”I commend you and your office and all those who supported this legislation. I think it’s altogether appropriate,” Evans said.

Although the names were read in open court, prosecutors did not release the full list, give case numbers associated with the original charges or provide any other information on them. However, one of the names read in court appeared to be of a man convicted of pot possession, as well as separate cases of selling marijuana and unlawful use of a weapon. Wednesday’s action would only clear the possession case from his record.

In a press conference after, Foxx spoke personally about her mother, who she said was a regular user of marijuana, self-medicating with the drug before she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Foxx said she never saw her mother as a criminal, who she said was lucky to never have been arrested, unlike those whose names she had just read.

“The notion that my mother would somehow be criminal, and the fact we have criminalized other mothers and fathers and brothers, for a substance that will now be legal seems unjust and unfair,” Foxx said.

Pritzker praised Foxx and her office for their role in helping write the legislation he signed in June to legalize recreational marijuana in the state, particularly in how the state would handle overturning prior convictions.

Thanks to the work of Foxx and the years-long efforts of activists, Pritzker said, “Illinois now has the most forward-thinking and equitable approach to cannabis legalization in the entire nation.”

Rep. Cassidy said Wednesday, more than the coming first day of legalization, was the “big day” for her, adding that the hearing was “the tip of the iceberg” for cases that will be vacated in the coming months.

“Repairing these harms, that we’ve done over years and years and years of a failed policy; we started that repair today,” Cassidy said. “I’m really grateful to have had the opportunity to witness it.”

The law, which goes into effect Jan. 1, allows for a ramp up period of five years to clear convictions, Foxx said, who said officials still couldn’t say how many cases would be expunged.

“We’ll learn from today to be able to give us an accurate timetable,” Foxx said of how long it will take for records to be cleared throughout the state. “I want to be clear, this is the first time anything like this has ever been done in the state of Illinois.

“Because it’s a new process, we’re gonna learn as we go, but we are optimistic we will be able to have a significant dent [made] in the coming months.”