A new program to help residents in Illinois who want to seal marijuana arrests or convictions from their criminal records has been launched with state funding.

New Leaf Illinois will work under the auspices of the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation (IEJF), an organization that distributes state funds to legal aid nonprofits. Previously, IEJF administered funds across two broad program areas – general legal aid and legal aid for veterans. Now, legal aid for marijuana offenses has been added as a distinct program.

New Leaf Illinois will put individuals seeking expungement for prior marijuana offenses that are now legal in touch with one of 20 nonprofits that provide free legal services on sealing criminal records. IEJF believes there are around 700,000 Illinoisans eligible for expungement of cannabis-related offenses.

Illinois legalized adult-use cannabis last year through the 2019 Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act. Gov. J.B. Prtitzker then pardoned 11,000 people with marijuana-related convictions the day before recreational cannabis sales began on January 1, 2020. Provisions of the law stipulate arrests and minor offenses pertaining to marijuana are eligible for automatic expungement – meaning the concerned individual needn’t petition the court for this to happen – but it could take up to five years for the records to be sealed. New Leaf seeks to help speed up the process for those eligible for automatic expungement, as well as those with an offense that requires them to petition the courts.

At a press conference announcing New Leaf Illinois’s establishment, IEJF board member Gray Mattheo-Harris said the extra support was crucial for marginalized communities who still bear the brunt of cannabis prohibition even now that it’s legal.

“These individuals may have a criminal record that could make it harder for them to actually get a job, advance their education or even be able to rent an apartment,” Mattheo-Harris said.

“If you look at the data, Black and brown people and economically disadvantaged communities were disproportionately penalized by past criminalization. The expungement process is one step toward repairing that harm for people who were previously arrested or prosecuted for something that is now legal for all of us,” she added.

One of the provisions of Illinois’s marijuana legalization law instructs the state to funnel cannabis sales tax revenues toward funding expungements. A portion of these funds were used to establish New Leaf and it will continue to receive support through the IEJF. Under other provisions of Illinois’s marijuana legalization legislation, tax revenue from retail cannabis sales is also allocated towards social equity and restorative justice initiatives known as the Restore, Reinvest and Renew (R3) program.

Illinoisans wishing to make use of New Leaf Illinois services can go to the New Leaf Illinois website to fill out a form after which they will be connected with a legal aid organization that can help. New Leaf Illinois can also be contacted by phone at (855) 963-9532.