Champaign circuit clerk among those working on potential issues with legal pot

Champaign circuit clerk among those working on potential issues with legal pot

URBANA — Champaign County Circuit Clerk Katie Blakeman is working behind the scenes to prepare for what's coming when and if recreational cannabis for adults is legalized in Illinois.

That legislation could be introduced as soon as next week.

"I am the co-chair of the legislative committee of the Illinois Association of Court Clerks," said Blakeman, the elected keeper of Champaign County court records since 2012.

That organization has been working for the last several years "to get a seat at the table on legislation that affects the courts" before it's enacted.

Someone must have heard them.

Blakeman has been part of a working group convened by Deputy Governor Christian Mitchell and bill co-sponsors Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, and Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, that's been meeting for about three months.

The group is brainstorming how to deal with issues that will come up when legalized cannabis rolls out.

Those include equity and finance, public education and awareness, record expungement and criminal justice, home growing, licensing and market size, tax structure, and revenue allocation.

Blakeman has been serving on the expungement and criminal-justice working group. For the last few years, her office has hosted expungement seminars in Urbana to help people convicted of crimes navigate the court system to rid themselves of their unpleasant history.

She said the sponsors of the bill to legalize recreational pot want a mechanism in place to allow people convicted of minor cannabis possession charges to shed that past without having to go through a lengthy, complicated petition process.

"We met the last three weeks in a row to discuss the procedures by which past offenses of cannabis could be cleared. We are trying to work with Illinois State Police, the Supreme Court and the State's Attorney's Association to look at what would be the most efficient way possible to address past records," she said.

Blakeman said the court clerks are "concerned about the amount of time it will take and the amount of staff hours it may take" to identify those records but are excited to be included in figuring out how it should be done rather than having an onerous procedure dictated to them.

One of the suggestions is that electronic court records would get priority for expungement.

"One thing some legislators were not aware of is that the physical record is also public. If we were to prioritize electronic records, that helps. But if we don't seal or expunge physical records, it would still be possible to be made public," she said.

Blakeman said some legislators also assumed that Illinois State Police would have all records of cannabis convictions, but Blakeman noted that anyone not fingerprinted would not be in the state police records system. Someone arrested for a small amount of cannabis could very well have been given a notice to appear in court by police rather than being arrested and fingerprinted, so a record of their conviction would be found at the county circuit clerk level.

"The intent is that the records would be identified by Illinois State Police and counties and state's attorneys would review them for eligibility (for expungement) and a judge will make a final determination," she said.

Blakeman said as a mother of three young children, she would like to see improved training for police to determine impairment while driving and more education for youth about all controlled substances — alcohol, tobacco and prescription drugs.

But the association of court clerks is not taking a position on the legalization of recreational cannabis.

"We are interested in helping legislators achieve legislative intent with procedural accuracy," she said.