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‘Does the punishment fit the crime?’

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In 2018, William Thomas C. was caught with 18 pounds of cannabis a few days after returning home from vacation with his grandchildren. He was charged with cannabis trafficking and manufacturing or delivering more than 5,000 grams of cannabis, according to court records. Before then, William, better known as Tom, ran a family farm and a lawn care business in Bloomington, Illinois. Since Tom has been serving a nine-year sentence at Centralia Correctional Center, his sister Tara C. has managed his businesses and talks with him several times a week.

Tara, who asked for her last name to be withheld to preserve her career, said Tom suffered a terrible motorcycle accident several years ago and turned to marijuana to help with his pain management as an alternative to prescription medications. During Tom’s trial, his family had to sell assets to pay for his attorney’s fees. But following his conviction, Tara reached out to the Last Prisoner Project, a Denver-based nonprofit which advocates for the freedom and welfare of people imprisoned for cannabis convictions, to help free Tom.

Tom is one of dozens incarcerated on cannabis offenses despite Illinois legalizing marijuana for recreational and medicinal use. In Illinois and in other states where cannabis has been legalized, there’s generally no resentencing or commutation procedures for those who are incarcerated, the only mechanism for expungement or sealing cannabis criminal records, said Sarah Gersten, executive director and general counsel of the Last Prisoner Project.

Now that the state has legalized recreational and medicinal cannabis use, 90 inmates remain incarcerated for offenses ranging from producing less than 200 cannabis plants to trafficking, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections’ March 31, 2021, prison population figures, which were the most recent statistics available. As the state expunges records for low-level cannabis crimes and dispensaries rake in millions in cannabis sales—recreational sales reached nearly $109 million in March 2021, according to the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation—nonprofits have stepped up to help free people incarcerated on cannabis offenses and remove those convictions from their records.

The irony of Tom’s imprisonment isn’t lost on him and his family. Tom’s mother wondered why her son remained incarcerated even after the state legalized weed. He’s been asking Tara to research charitable organizations that could help him get released. Tara said she felt conflicted.

“I am a firm believer if you break the law, you have to suffer the consequences,” Tara said. “I don’t think that he should—because he’s a nice guy and comes from a great background and has a great family and whatever—that he shouldn’t have to pay the price. But does the punishment fit the crime?”

Of course, Tom’s family isn’t alone in wondering how soon before cannabis prisoners serving lengthy sentences will be released. Gersten said the organization has been in contact with Governor Pritzker’s office. Toi Hutchinson, the senior adviser on cannabis control, seemed very interested in working with the organization on identifying more inmates incarcerated in state prisons for cannabis crimes. The nonprofit, however, has run into administrative holdups as it seeks to do the same for other prisoners.

“Most states, including Illinois, it seems, don’t necessarily have that data readily available. You know, oftentimes, the systems that they’re using are antiquated,” Gersten said. “So, it takes a proactive initiative and a willingness for the state to want to just start the process and work to get that data, and work to identify those individuals. That I would say is, sort of, you know, the next biggest hurdle in Illinois.”

Though COVID-19 has taken many governors’ attention away from releasing cannabis prisoners, Gersten said the pandemic has also created newfound urgency to decarcerate inmates as the coronavirus spreads within prisons. Correctional facilities aren’t designed to protect inmates from infectious disease, and the organization has been hearing “really atrocious stories” from its constituents about prison conditions.

“My hope is that more progressive governors, like Governor Pritzker, will see this as an opportunity to further reduce their prison population, because there’s such an urgent health need right now,” Gersten said.

The Illinois Department of Corrections did not respond to multiple interview requests from the Reader.

Hutchinson maintains that there’s no disconnect between the governor’s office and the organizations seeking to free cannabis prisoners. The government was already slow, but the pandemic has further complicated the state’s ability to operate. Still, Hutchinson commended the effort to expunge cannabis offenses so far.

“There’s nothing normal about life right now,” Hutchinson said. “Every single day, we do as much as we can from as many different directions as we can.”

Once the state law took effect on January 1, 2020, legalizing recreational cannabis, Illinois had to begin expunging certain classes of offenses over a five-year period, Hutchinson said. When asked at what point Pritzker would begin examining more complex cannabis offenses, Hutchinson said, “we’re doing that now.”

She went on to tout the Illinois State Police Department and the Illinois Prisoner Review Board’s efforts to expunge nearly 500,000 arrest records ahead of schedule. A spokesperson told the Sun-Times that the governor has pardoned more than 20,000 cannabis convictions. Meanwhile, State Representative Mary Flowers has introduced a bill that aims to automatically expunge criminal records and free people who are incarcerated for cannabis crimes.

“The thing that’s so . . . sad about this topic is that the sheer number of records that there are shows you how prolific the overpolicing and targeting was,” Hutchinson said. “Remember, we are trying to undo 87 years of a horrible drug problem, and this is our first attempt. And it’s a very, very strong one. But . . . we should never again be lulled to sleep and think that our work is done on one effort.”

As the state expunges low-level cannabis offenses, some have remained in prison for crimes pertaining to more than 30 grams, an amount of cannabis that “seems like an incredibly small amount to me just to have for personal use,” Gersten said. “Now, we’ve decided that cannabis is legal, people should profit off of it, but, of course, only certain people are profiting off of it. And the individuals that were in the cannabis business before it became a legal business, they’re not able to take advantage of these laws.”

For people with cannabis criminal records seeking to get them expunged, the state has funded New Leaf Illinois, an initiative aiming to provide free legal representation or information. Illinois Legal Aid Online, one of 20 organizations involved in the effort, has created a collection of online tools to help users through the process of getting their records cleared. The state’s third universal form used for the people with more complex cannabis cases is expected to be approved sometime in early 2021, at which point Illinois Legal Aid will create an automated form for the public, said Andrew Sharp, content director at Illinois Legal Aid.

People with cannabis criminal records often come to the organization with questions about whether their case qualifies for automatic expungement or requires them to file a motion, as well as to ask about their rights with regard to consumption, and how that changes with employment and immigration status, Sharp said.

“There’s a lot of instances where your rights are limited by the fact that it’s still illegal at the federal level,” Sharp said. “Even people who are using cannabis medically still have to worry about some of these federal repercussions.”

Besides the federal law complicating expungement for folks with cannabis records, the complexity of Illinois’s local court systems is another hurdle for people navigating the process, Sharp said. Though Pritzker, state legislators, and the Illinois Supreme Court are doing what they can to streamline the process, each circuit court has its own clerks and the Illinois Prisoner Review Board hearings for determining which cases to recommend for pardoning aren’t transparent or open to the public to attend, he said.

The federal prohibition of cannabis continues to complicate lives, said Beth Johnson, project manager for the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation. Johnson pointed out that state sentences for cannabis offenses can be shorter than federal ones, which could last for more than 20 years, so state offenders could be released before commutations procedures begin. But once released from prison, having a cannabis offense may hinder someone’s ability to get jobs, federal public housing, firearms, state licensing, and schooling, she said.

“No matter what you’ve done in your life, there are points in time and different opportunities that a background check can ruin all of that,” Johnson said. “It’s just [a] lack of opportunities, whether it’s an absolute barrier to you getting it or it’s making you settle for something less because of something in your past.”

The House passage of the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (MORE) in December 2020 is a sign that the federal government could decriminalize cannabis, which paves the way for people incarcerated on federal crimes to regain their freedom, Gersten said. But the Senate referred the legislation to the Committee on Finance.

“I think in the new administration, we will see progress,” Gersten said. “I just think it defies logic for lawmakers to continue to believe that individuals should remain incarcerated while others are profiting off of this same activity.”

Tom’s incarceration has taken a toll on his family, Tara said. She and his other siblings will support Tom once he’s released, and their mother is handling the situation better than expected, Tara said. However, Tom’s incarceration has been difficult for his two adult sons, she noted.

“There’s a lot of hurt, but we’re a very close family. We’re very supportive. He’ll have a lot of support when he does get out,” Tara said. “Hopefully, there’ll be a life for him when he gets out and he can still be a productive human being and give back to society in a good way.”

Tara noted that Tom has exercised, continued taking his blood pressure medication, and received his COVID-19 vaccine. She hopes Tom will continue this healthy lifestyle. She foresees him returning to Michigan, where they grew up, and enjoying nature, but wondered what limits would be placed on her brother after he’s released.

“He loves a snowmobile, and he loves to hunt—although he can’t hunt because [he] can’t have a gun,” Tara said. “He loves the outdoors stuff, and I would love for him to get back to that area and be able to go where he’s always wanted.”  v

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