Kim Foxx’s vision: Automatically erase more serious convictions for weed dealing, expunge cocaine or heroin arrests

In an interview with the Sun-Times, Foxx said for people in some areas of the city, drug dealing “was the only economy that they had.” Their records should be expunged automatically, she said.

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Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx.

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx

Sun-Times file photo

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx detailed a bold vision for drug enforcement as she laid out a plan to automatically wipe clean the records of convicted weed dealers and opened the door to expunging offenses for heroin and cocaine possession.

In an exclusive interview with the Sun-Times, Foxx framed cannabis legalization as a “test balloon” for reexamining the country’s drug laws — and their toll on the communities that have suffered the most.

“I think this is the gateway conversation to deeper conversations around treating addiction as a public health issue and looking at the drug economy that has flourished in these neighborhoods while every other bit of economy has abandoned [them],” Foxx said.

High on her list is helping those caught up in the drug war move on with their lives by automatically expunging criminal records so those convicted don’t have to take any actions to get their records wiped clean after they serve their sentences. Her office has already automatically expunged about 2,200 low-level pot convictions for possession of 30 grams or less, the amount of weed that’s now legal to have.

But Foxx ultimately wants to use her office’s existing infrastructure for identifying cases to similarly wipe out more serious offenses for selling cannabis, which she acknowledged typically involves more than 30 grams. Currently, those convicted of a crime dealing with 30 to 500 grams of pot must petition the court to have their record expunged.

“We should also make it easier for those who had those sales convictions for higher amounts to also be able to have their convictions vacated automatically,” Foxx said.

“No, they didn’t have a license. And no, it wasn’t legal. But it was the only economy that they had,” she said, noting that legal pot firms are now “doing the exact same thing and making a ton of money.”

Nick Slusinski and his wife Jennifer, of Plainfield, who started standing in line at 1:30 a.m. Jan. 1 ,2 020, were the first customers to enter Rise Joliet, a cannabis dispensary in southwest suburban Joliet, make their purchase on the first day of legalized recreational marijuana in Illinois.

Customers lined up earlier this year and spent big money at legal weed stores.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

The comments appear to be the first time Foxx has spoken about automatically expunging records of those found guilty of more serious drug offenses than low-level possession. Previously she said she thought those convictions should be reviewed on a “case-by-case basis.”

Sarah Sinovic, a spokeswoman for the state’s attorney, clarified that Foxx doesn’t yet have any immediate plans to begin automatically expunging those records.

“It’s a vision that she has,” Sinovic said.

For now, Foxx’s office is most focused on meeting the deadlines for automatically expunging convictions that were put forth in the state’s legalization law that took effect earlier this year.

The first batch of records, which include convictions from 2013 through this year, must be completed by Jan. 1. The next set of 11,000 expected cases stretches from 2000 to 2012 and has to be completed by the start of 2023, while earlier convictions must be expunged over the following two years.

Foxx said she had hoped to move through the low-level cases “more expeditiously” so her office could begin tackling the more serious offenses. However, the COVID-19 outbreak ultimately “shut things down” along with other complications.

Not just pot

Amid those hiccups, Foxx made it clear that her vision for reform doesn’t end with weed.

“What has been a long concern of mine … is other drugs that are still illegal, that are still being prosecuted, in some of these very neighborhoods that are being devastated by the war on drugs,” Foxx said. “And marijuana was but one of the drugs. It wasn’t the totality of the devastation.”

Using the West Side as an example, Foxx noted the crack cocaine epidemic that started in the 1980s has now given way to the deadly opioid crisis. Through those decades of destruction, Foxx complained the area’s “economic infrastructure” still hasn’t been rebuilt.

Now, Foxx is looking to address the systemic issues that underlie those scourges. Currently, possession of 15 grams or less of heroin or cocaine can result in a felony conviction that typically can’t be expunged from criminal records.

Asked whether she would advocate for expunging convictions for possession of those harder drugs, Foxx answered “yes” — as long as it’s part of a larger, progressive approach to handling addiction.

“If we recognize substance abuse disorder as a health condition, then we must modify our justice system to treat it as such,” Foxx said. “Criminalizing health is not in the interest of public safety.”

Public support grows

Foxx’s push is in line with national trends, experts said, but even they are surprised at how far society has come in pushing back on the drug war.

“It is clear that public support for harsh drug sentences is fading, and this is particularly true for minor possession and use cases,” said Ralph Weisheit, a professor of criminal justice at Illinois State University. “Decriminalizing minor possession of hard drugs, as has happened in Oregon, is something I would not have predicted even five years ago.”

Even more surprising is that someone in Foxx’s position is leading the charge, he said.

“That prosecutors would express any support for these changes is not something I would have expected. Historically, prosecutors have not led the charge for decriminalization,” he said.

Even some who have been opposed to legalization in the past are OK with the push for expungement — even for low-level dealers.

Riverside Police Chief Thomas Wietzel, an executive board member of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, former president of the West Suburban Chiefs of Police Association and a member of the state’s Impaired Driving Task Force, spoke in opposition to legalizing both medical and recreational marijuana.

Now he sees expungement for possession of less than 30 grams as something he supports. And he would accept that for drug dealers — with caveats.

“If it’s a small amount they are convicted of selling, that’s more difficult. But if they’re not selling to juveniles, at public parks ... I would be OK with that,” he said.

But automatically expunging for convictions involving the larger amounts Foxx advocates, he says, is too much: “I think that large manufacturing and delivery cases, that’s a different story.”

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