Featuring Beth Johnson, partner at Rights & Restoration Law Group.
Q: Thanks for taking the time to share your expertise. Can you tell readers a bit about who you are and your background in expungement and record-sealing?
Beth Johnson: The pleasure is mine! My experience in expungement and sealing began when I was a law student intern at Cabrini Green Legal Aid (CGLA). In 2005, CGLA hired me as the Expungement Help Desk Coordinator. I worked at CGLA through 2019 as the Criminal Records Program Director, the Legal Director, and the Senior Policy Advisor. My entire legal career has been in the area of criminal records relief: expungement and sealing, pardons, certificates, waivers, and all other legal remedies from a past arrest or conviction. I’ve had the privilege of not just providing representation, but working in Springfield for nearly ten years alongside coalition partners to make our laws better and more accessible and to remove the barriers caused by criminal records. In 2019, I and two partners opened our own firm, the Rights & Restoration Law Group.
Q: We’ve learned that New Leaf is an important first step in this process. What is New Leaf?
Beth: New Leaf Illinois is a statewide network of legal aid and advocacy organizations with one purpose: help people access the new cannabis expungement remedies that came with the legalization bill and provide legal representation for free when eligible. The purpose of having expungement remedies built into the cannabis legalization bill was to allow people previously prosecuted for something that is now legal to remove records from public view so they no longer have barriers to employment, housing, education, or other life opportunities. New Leaf Illinois is an example of the State of Illinois not just passing legislation intended to help, but actually funding the services! State funding was appropriated to the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation (IEJF) to distribute to nonprofit organizations that provide legal services so people know about the laws, the remedies, and where to go to get help. IEJF has distributed state funding for legal aid for the last 20 years in Illinois, and this was a natural extension of the work for this important form of relief.
Q: Who does New Leaf help? Does it include people who don’t have a cannabis record?
Beth: New Leaf is there to help anyone with an Illinois cannabis conviction or arrest navigate and access the expungement process. The process and eligibility can be confusing, and the goal of the coordinated network is to have one place for people to work through the initial steps. New Leaf recognizes people can come with other arrests and convictions—and the legal aid organizations that are part of New Leaf can help with expungement and sealing of other records.
Q: What does the New Leaf aid process look like from start to finish?
Beth: The process starts with registering at newleafillinois.org or calling 855-963-9532. It’s a one-minute registration process, where a person provides their basic information and identifies what county they had an arrest or conviction for cannabis in. With that information, research is conducted and eligibility for relief is determined. Typically, within two days that person is contacted for a legal consultation. If eligible to vacate and expunge their cannabis conviction, and if individuals fall below a certain maximum income, they will be referred to a legal aid organization for representation in court—no matter what county in Illinois they live in.
Q: What are some common reasons that people don’t pursue help?
Beth: People often seek assistance after being denied an opportunity: a job offer that is rescinded, a rental apartment that is denied, an educational opportunity that is no longer available. Many people believe that when an arrest or conviction is older, it automatically goes away. Unfortunately, that is not true, and it requires a person to take action by filing in court. People also don’t always know where to start. One of the beautiful things about New Leaf Illinois is that there is one starting point—you don’t need to figure out where to go or what to do, the network is there to support you.
Q: Are there any other FAQs or common misconceptions you’d like to clarify for our readers?
Beth: People may have heard the news that half a million records have been expunged, not realizing the limitations of the automatic part of the law. Unfortunately, those half a million records were law enforcement records, not court records that are still viewable by employers, landlords, and all other agencies running background checks. And the automatic part only deals with non-convictions. The best course of action is to contact New Leaf to find out for sure what your next steps are. People also think if they have other arrests or convictions, why deal with a cannabis case? Again, if a person has other records, New Leaf organizations will address the cannabis and other incidents on a person’s record.
This is a sponsored content series, paid for by Green Thumb Industries. Submit YOUR questions on expungement and record-sealing in Illinois to firstname.lastname@example.org. Learn more about Rights & Restoration Law Group at www.rightsandrestorationlawgroup.com and IEFJ at www.iejf.org.
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