CENTRAL ILLINOIS (WCIA)– Thousands in Illinois are still eligible to have their criminal records wiped clean.

Recreational marijuana was legalized on January 1, 2020. For hundreds of thousands of people, that meant a chance to clear the slate.

Shortly after the bill was signed in 2019, the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council estimated at least 572,000 minor cannabis offenses would be automatically expunged. Another around 119,000 could either be pardoned by petition or go through an expungement process.

For the people behind these charges, vacating could be a life-changer, opening up more access to jobs, higher education, and even places to live.

20 years ago Christopher Bradford was in Decatur when officers caught him with a personal stash of marijuana. Bradford said guns were present, resulting in multiple felony charges.

“I had a rough trying to get a job, keeping a job,” he explained. “Once they see a Class X or a felony on your background, employers try to, you know…” Bradford put his hand up, signaling a stop sign and gestured backing away.

More than a decade later, he said he was constantly explaining his charges to employers during yearly reviews.

“I’m saying to myself, ‘Well this is hindering me.'”

These days Bradford does what he loves. He spends his working hours at the stovetop as the kitchen manager at Brunchfield Cafe in Springfield.

“The sky is the limit now, and that’s what I plan on doing is reaching to the sky because I don’t have this on my back,” Bradford shared.

His luck changed in June 2019 with the passage of the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act.

“When cannabis was legalized, they also took the next step to say, ‘We should actually go back and help the people who have records for things that wouldn’t be illegal today,'” shared Susan Zielke, the managing attorney for Land of Lincoln Legal Aid’s eastern regional office.

Zielke is a part of a network called New Leaf Illinois that pairs people with cannabis charges with free legal help. She represented Bradford and is currently working on about 150 cases from across 15 counties.

“You can mark that you do not have a felony conviction. It’s been expunged,” she said in reference to filling out a job application.

Zielke said that’s a huge deal.

Non-violent cannabis-related ordinance violations, misdemeanors, and Class 4 felonies are eligible for expungement or cases plead down to that, according to Zielke

For Bradford, it was about an eight- to nine-month process.

“They say no news is good news, but on certain things… I was like, ‘oh my god,'” he said, putting his head in his hands. “…Is it gonna happen?”

He got the letter from Illinois State Police just a few weeks ago.

Zielke said Land of Lincoln helped expunge 50 charges so far, and more than 1,100 people have registered with New Leaf. But, although that is not the only avenue for legal help, a New Leaf representative told us thousands of records remain.

“People don’t know that they can do something about their cannabis conviction,” Zielke explained. “I think a big piece of it is just lack of awareness, ad the other piece is those that do know something can be done believe the state is just going to take care of it.”

Even the nearly 600,000 who qualify for automatic expungement could be waiting another four years. Under the new law, non-violent cases where someone was arrested but not convicted for possessing less than 30 grams must be expunged by 2025.

“When the state was supposed to start automatically taking care of some of these, they still needed to send a notice to the local circuit clerks to tell the circuit clerk to get it off of the court record,” Zielke added. “And in some of those cases, that’s not happening at all.”

Zielke said she hasn’t run into any objections from the courts so far.

Bradford is thankful his record is clean, and hopes others get their chance as well.

“I’m not a bad guy,” he began. “It’s a lot of good people, who, I mean, they made mistakes. We all got to grow.”

Bradford advises anyone with a cannabis record, or another record they have questions about clearing, to reach out to Land of Lincoln Legal Aid. Even if you don’t know if you are eligible for expungement, make the call, Zielke added.

You can fill out the form on New Leaf’s website or apply online on Land of Lincoln’s site. New Leaf’s hotline number is 855-963-9532. Land of Lincoln Legal Aid also has a hotline: 877-342-7891.