African Americans Seek Return To Equity After Marijuana Legalization Grants Opportunity To Expunge Criminal Charges

How does a legal system that has invested decades fighting a long-lost drug war go about repairing the damage done to minority communities? House Bill 1438 will legalize recreational marijuana in Illinois, which means that any marijuana-related convictions are potentially up for expungement. That might mean little and less for those families who have been adversely affected by the old laws, though.

Richard Wallace, the founder of a non-profit called EAT, or Equity And Transformation, says “This is the greatest contradiction that we’ve seen: the war on drugs. A poor person sells cannabis to put food on the table; they’re a criminal. A wealthy person sells cannabis to make more wealth; they’re toted as innovators.”

It’s difficult to argue against the logic.

For decades, the drug war has landed African Americans in jail much more often than their white counterparts, who statistically were guilty of at least as many marijuana-related drug crimes before those crimes were decriminalized and legalized.

Wallace isn’t worried about expungements. He’s worried about the restoration of equity between white communities and black communities. “I think for us it was less about people being able to smoke weed. We don’t care. Our thing is that it has to be an equitable transition,” he said.

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx seems to agree with Wallace’s view. When approached with a bill that would legalize recreational marijuana, she made sure that criminal justice reform was a big part of the process. Convictions involving under 30 grams of marijuana possession will automatically be vacated, without any further need to seek expungement.

Those who were found in possession of 30 to 500 grams of marijuana will have to go one step further: they will need to petition to have those charges expunged, which means they could benefit from a lawyer who specializes in expungements.

House Bill 1438’s co-sponsor, State Senator Heather Steans, estimates that about three-quarters of a million convictions will be eligible for expungement because of the new law, 70 percent of which are in Cook County, but those numbers aren’t exact because the Illinois State Police don’t make the numbers of convictions and arrests available to the public.

But that isn’t much to someone whose life was upended by the former legal process for drug conviction: Angelo Leslie was arrested at 17 for possession with intent to distribute.

“That was pretty rough,” he said. “Because now the prosecutor is basically trying to paint a picture of my escalation in crime. So they try to tell the judge that it’s only gonna get worse from here. But in my head, I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, it’s gonna get worse because you’re taking all my options.’ So I can’t go – I couldn’t even get a job at McDonald’s.”

Melissa Thompson writes about a wide range of topics, revealing interesting things we didn’t know before. She is a freelance USA Today producer, and a Technorati contributor.