As marijuana legalization nears, those who left crime behind hope to clear their records
Driving downstate in 2010, Darius Ballinger was arrested with almost a pound of marijuana. He pleaded to a lesser felony, served jail time and was sentenced to probation. As a high school dropout and gang member whose father died when he was young, he admits he was a “knucklehead” without guidance, running the streets.
When a good friend and mentor died at the age of 23, Ballinger said, “I had a kind of crossroads moment in my life. His death inspired me to do something good in the world.”
Ballinger tried to get work with Chicago Public Schools, and considered joining the military, but his felony record prevented both. It become an obstacle to many jobs he sought.
Determined to take a new path, Ballinger got his high school degree and began attending college. He started his own nonprofit mentoring foundation in honor of his late friend, called Chasing23, and a related apparel company. When given a chance at a new course in life, Ballinger said, people with a criminal record will take it. Now at age 28, he’s finding success, but is still haunted by his criminal convictions from years ago.
When Illinois lawmakers acted to legalize marijuana sales next year, they included provisions to wipe out lower-level cannabis convictions — part of a nationwide movement to clear such records. But for people like Ballinger, it may not be easy.
The process of destroying records of an offense, known as expungement, typically takes months or years, advocates say, and involves getting fingerprinted, chasing down records and going to court. Those who’ve been through the process say the ordeal is well worth it, and gives people a chance to make their lives known for more than their worst mistakes.
To speed up the process for cannabis cases, by the end of the year, Illinois State Police are required to compile a list of offenders with charges involving 30 grams or fewer. Arrest records are to be automatically destroyed, and the state Prisoner Review Board will recommend whether to pardon convictions. If Gov. J.B. Pritzker grants the pardons, as expected, the court files would be sealed, meaning they’d be hidden from public view.
The governor’s office estimated that roughly 700,000 criminal cases could be cleared, making it easier for those people to get jobs and housing. Any cases associated with a violent crime would not be eligible.
Studies show that expungement can help reduce repeat offenses by those who get their records wiped clean. A study by the University of Michigan found that those who got their records set aside in that state were more likely to get jobs, their wages went up by 25%, and 99 percent were not convicted of a felony in the next five years The results were cheaper and more effective than job training programs.
For people such as Ballinger, who are eligible for — but not guaranteed — a pardon, Cabrini Green Legal Aid programs director Cynthia Cornelius advises waiting for the process to play out next year. If the governor does not end up pardoning their cases, they can go to court to ask a judge to vacate their convictions, though prosecutors or police can oppose their requests.
Those convicted of certain criminal offenses have long had the option to seek to expunge or seal their records, but the process can be more complicated than it is supposed to be for lower-level cannabis cases. Those who are going through the process say their experience can be enlightening for those who will attempt it in the future.
Heavyweight boxer “Fast” Fres Oquendo knows what it’s like to go through the process. Oquendo, who was born in Puerto Rico but was raised and living in Chicago, has contended for the heavyweight title, and is currently in legal disputes over canceled prizefights.
In 1994, Oquendo was 19 and a national Golden Gloves champion when, he said, he was arrested after a friend got caught with crack cocaine in his car, and he pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver.
The conviction nearly derailed his boxing career, and years later, when he formed the Fres Oquendo Boxing Academy for youth, his record initially kept him from working for the Chicago Park District. His attorney, Beth Johnson, said Oquendo has since gotten his court records sealed, and has formed a partnership to work with youths for both the Park District and schools.
Even sealed records can turn up when government agencies perform fingerprint background checks, Johnson said. So now Oquendo, 46, awaits an October hearing before the Prisoner Review Board seeking a pardon.
“My record has been a gorilla on my back chasing me my whole career,” he said. “I want to get it off my record so I can live a normal life.”
One woman who’s completed the expungement process said it changed her life.
Sardike Bennett hit rock bottom before she turned her life around. Raised in the Ida B. Wells public housing project in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, Bennett said she was smart and inquisitive and stayed in school, but got in a lot of trouble.
She ended up in a gang abusing drugs. She started by drinking cough syrup or “lean,” moved on to smoking “primos” of tobacco or marijuana with cocaine, then snorting heroin, and using methadone to keep from getting sick until she could get more heroin.
She was charged with a string of crimes, from theft to battery, and ended up in Cook County Jail. “I told God, you can take me now, is this my whole life?” she said. “I didn’t know nothing else but to get in trouble.”
While in jail, Bennett was struck by the heartfelt gospel singing of another inmate. Once she got out, she said, she let God take control of her life. She moved to Iowa to get away from the people, places and things that had led her into trouble.
With help from people there, she got clean, found work, and eventually married and had five children. She has since moved to Montgomery, Alabama, and said she has been sober for 22 years, got a real estate license and a college degree. After repeatedly running into problems with background checks when seeking jobs, Williams returned to Chicago in 2017 to seek expungement of numerous cases that were more than 20 years old.
She made two trips, one to get her rap sheet from police headquarters and schedule a court date, and then to return in 2018 for a court hearing at which she obtained court orders to destroy her arrest records and seal the court files.
“It’s like a chain broke off me,” she said. “It’s like I’m free. People really do change. That process of expungement allowed me to change.”
In light of the new law, a number of organizations are holding events in Chicago to mark the second annual National Expungement Week, starting Saturday. In addition to regularly scheduled events, such as the Cabrini Green Legal Aid help desk at Daley Center Monday through Thursday, there will be special gatherings to help people clear their records, listed at offtherecord.com.
The Chicago Expungement Clinic is scheduled for noon to 5 p.m. Sunday, at Third Wave Coffee, 1035 W. Lake St., in Chicago. The event is hosted by cannabis company Element 7 and NDICA, the National Diversity and Inclusion Cannabis Alliance, which will pay court filing fees, which cost $120 or more.
Bonita Money, founder of NDICA, said her organization has helped people in Los Angeles get expungements, but lack of outreach, high filing fees and bureaucracy keep most people from taking advantage of such programs. She also questions whether the convoluted process in Illinois involving the police, the courts, the review board and the governor will cause people to fall through the cracks.
“If you make it too difficult,” she said, “people won’t take all the steps to get it done.”
Not everyone is thrilled with the expungement process. The Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police expressed concerns before the law’s passage. Kevin Sabet, CEO of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said he supports the concept but not the law.
“People should be given a second chance after making a poor decision, and we should facilitate their ability to get a job and get back on their feet,” he said. “Legalizing marijuana, however, is the wrong way to do this.”