BRONZEVILLE — You can now order cannabis gummies and pre-rolled joints from the comfort of your home — but for many Illinois residents, old drug charges are still preventing them from renting an apartment or getting a job.
The Cannabis Equity Coalition of Illinois is trying to change that.
On Friday, more than 50 people showed up to the Coalition’s RAP sheet event at Chicago Police headquarters, 3501 S. Michigan Ave., which helped those with old marijuana-related charges get their criminal records expunged.
Those who attended were able to connect with a legal representative to begin the arduous expungement process, which destroys court records of past convictions.
Advocates with Legal Aid Chicago, Chicago Norml and other volunteers joined the Coalition to host the event. The Coalition covered transportation expenses and the $16 fee to obtain a criminal record.
Peter Contos, advocacy coordinator for the Coalition, said the process can be daunting to those who’ve been caught up in the criminal justice system. The first step on Friday was using a fingerprint to obtain a criminal record — or rap sheet — and connecting people with an attorney to petition the court system to seal or expunge past convictions.
“It’s a complicated process. You have to go to court, there’s all of these things you have to do, this really takes that burden off of somebody, and it’s free,” he said.
One priority of the Coalition is “righting the wrongs of the War on Drugs,” Contos said.
“Anybody who’s currently incarcerated or formerly incarcerated for cannabis, and that’s still weighing on their record … restricting them from accessing housing, education, jobs, all these things, it’s really imperative that we clear all these as soon as possible,” he said.
Although the Coalition organizes around cannabis, those with non-cannabis offenses were able to participate and be connected with legal aid.
Jermaine Kelly said he’s begun the process towards expungement in the past but was frustrated by the system.
“They finally set me up with some legal aid, they’re finally going to look at my background and see all of the things that can be removed,” he said.
It’s hard to live down a felony conviction, Kelly said, recounting a job interview that went well until the company asked about his past. Despite that, and surviving a shooting in 2019 while studying for a construction certificate program, Kelly now works in the industry and hopes a clean record will help him advance in his career.
“Once you make a mistake and they label you a felon, it’s kind of like that’s who you are now, no matter what you’re doing with your life, no matter all the achievements or accolades you might do after becoming a felon, they always want to see you as a felon,” he said.
Jay, who asked to only go by his first name, said he currently works as a fork-lift operator, hired by the “one in one hundred” companies that looked past his felony conviction to give him a chance, but hopes to drive his own truck in the future.
“Maybe I can have a forklift driver loading my truck instead of filling up somebody else’s truck,” he said.
Jay encouraged others that are striving to move beyond their past to seek out aid and begin the expungement process as soon as possible.
“If you got places you need to go and plans you need to happen that’s going to take more money, that’s going to take more credentials and for you to have a clean background, you’ve got to eventually take the steps I did today,” he said.
Although over 100 people signed up in advance, not all were able to make it because of jobs or other circumstances. The Coalition connected with at least 10 people on Friday who asked about the event when they saw their volunteer booth.
The group was able to coordinate with the Police Department to handle a higher volume of rap sheet requests than the department sees on a daily basis. Eventually, the Coalition hopes to hold monthly or twice-monthly events to reach more people, Contos said.
“Folks are getting in and out in minutes today,” he said. “We absolutely do not plan at stopping at one week or one month, we recognize this is never going to end.”
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