Our Cannabis Expungement Project Team at CARPLS

November 19, 2020

By CARPLS Legal Aid

As we debut our much-anticipated and historic Illinois cannabis expungement project, we understand that our role is to serve as the opening door across the State to help thousands upon thousands of people to expunge their cannabis records, charges and arrests, and to move their lives forward.

This is the first CARPLS project that started and was built and launched remotely, so this is a unique time in our organization’s history. Though the pandemic has shaken many things up, our services are expanding to help even more people in need.

Our staff is busily preparing for the launch and we wanted to take a moment to hear about their motivation. Meet the team!

Going Back to their Roots in Criminal Justice

For Geneva Brown, a new staff attorney at CARPLS, cannabis expungement is an area she’s been passionate about for many years.

“I’ve seen the consequences of the extreme end of cannabis arrests and how it affected their families. Coming to CARPLS is a natural progression so that I can help a wide variety of people on the back end. It’s an amazing opportunity for people to clear their cannabis records and wipe their slate clean.

When I was a public defender, I saw hundreds of people suffer not only punishment for the crime charged. Clients, who had felonies, especially drug offences, were barred from voting, gaining employment, receiving financial aid, and obtaining licenses for well-paying jobs. New Leaf is an opportunity to give thousands a fresh start.

Being poor in the justice system is something that I’ve understood. There are economic constraints on people that aren’t just criminal. Equity, diversity and inclusion are things that may already be present in the criminal justice system and nonprofits, but equity means that people are treated the same when they are involved in these cases. If CARPLS can level this playing field, that’s a huge impact.

It’s great to learn how expansive this program could be. It’s really a once in a career opportunity to watch people clear their convictions.”

Nick Seidel, is a new paralegal at CARPLS, who quickly fell in love with legal aid.

“After working in legal aid, it’s hard to find something that appeals to you as much. When I saw this job posting, my eyes popped out of my head. I just have a passion for the mission.

I have direct experience with the legal aid system. I was previously incarcerated, and that’s where I got my paralegal certificate. Working for legal aid, that’s how I can extend equity to people who could not usually afford it during a most difficult time.

There is a chance that 800,000 people in Illinois will need this service. Getting an expungement in general can change a person’s life. The cannabis expungement project is a novel concept and we have big plans, but until it gets into motion, we won’t know how it will play out. It’s a statewide program and involves 102 counties. We will have obstacles, I’m sure, but we’ll figure them out. I’m 100% confident we can do this.”

Kathleen Callahan, a staff attorney at CARPLS, recently returned to us after a stint at the Access to Justice Commission of the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts. She sees the systemic improvements the New Leaf Project can make, as well as the life-changing impact.

“The Illinois Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act opens the door to criminal records relief for many, but the fairly difficult for most self-represented litigants. We need to even the playing field, but there are years of systemic obstacles, especially to black, brown and indigenous people of color, that we have to fight against.

The hotline will open up that path forward for many people, especially self-represented litigants. Even though there is criminal record relief available, studies show that many people eligible for criminal records relief won’t pursue it due to the complexity of the court process. We can show people what their rights are and help walk them through the process.

We are trying to get the word out, get people to the front door of the process, and then to the right legal aid organization. And what about people who can’t get representation? How do we help people who are representing themselves and will they follow through?

We are going to try our best to make sure people know about and use this service.”

New Horizons For Our CARPLS Staff

Yaritza Lopez, a new paralegal at CARPLS, first heard about CARPLS in 2018 through Patti Cintron-Bastin, a staff attorney at CARPLS and a legal professor at Wilbur Wright College.

After earning her undergraduate degree, she was working at a private law firm when she heard about the project.

“I had only worked in immigration and cannabis was interesting to me. I thought it was really cool that Illinois was one of the few states that legalized it.

When I was working outside of legal aid, people were calling asking for help. For most people, it was a lot of money, and they were unsure about giving us information or they couldn’t afford the legal fees. When the client couldn’t afford it, we couldn’t really help them.

At CARPLS, this doesn’t matter. CARPLS has a bunch of different clients in a bunch of different areas of law, who they advise for free. It’s a really amazing opportunity to work for this kind of organization.

I was telling my friends about the position and they could tell I was proud. I’m really grateful to be here and looking forward to the project launch.

Dennis Trainor, a staff attorney at CARPLS, joined the New Leaf team, in part, to better analyze criminal cannabis records and to increase his knowledge and legal skills.

“It also seems challenging. I look forward to working with people to determine whether they are eligible for expungement particularly.

The long-term effect of this project is that we don’t clog the system with these cannabis cases and we don’t mar these people’s lives. People need relief.

I’m just here to help this program grow, and it’s an exciting time for this organization. It’s just magical. I’m really happy that I can be a part of it.”

Ian Turnipseed, a staff attorney with CARPLS, enjoys being a part of a pioneering team.

“It’s great to be a part of the certain step forward that the State of Illinois is making. The past needs to get cleared up as a matter of fairness.

People are facing criminal sanctions that could follow them around for the rest of their lives. That this legislation now exists is exciting, but we can hopefully give people opportunities like housing, jobs, etc.

It’s interesting working back in criminal law since most of our advice is civil. I interned at the public defender’s office in law school at the Cook County Felony Trial Division, so it’s like going back to my roots.”

Grisel Medina, a paralegal at CARPLS, volunteered for the New Leaf project because she had “zero experience” with anything criminal.

She is also thrilled to be the voice behind the cannabis expungement project’s recordings, which she says gives it a “homegrown” quality.

“It really speaks to how CARPLS operates—how we’re part of this amazing legal aid community and one of the staff is the voice of the project. It’s really cool.

The reason I started working at CARPLS because I wanted to try something new. It’s been quite an adventure, and it’s a lot of learning.

This project will put our name out even more. They’re expecting an influx of people. If it does, there’s a huge population looking to get their cannabis records expunged and we’re prepared for it. Now that there’s this network handling it, it will be more efficient than ever. It’s becoming much more streamlined, so I’m really happy.”

Helping Clients Move Forward

Melissa Wemstrom is a supervising attorney at CARPLS and has been an integral part of our organization for 13 years.

“We’re drawing upon a lot of the success we’ve had with IL-AFLAN and its statewide electronic referrals. I’m excited to be part of such a large project that is going to help so many people throughout the state.

With this program, we’re also incorporating new strategies to communicate with our clients. We are asking people what their preferred method of communication is, and we are texting people that want text messages. I’m really hoping that this is going to make our services more accessible to people.

Those who have been unfairly treated by the criminal justice system often have the perception that lawyers won’t help them and that the legal system is against them. But at CARPLS, you can get help directly from an attorney that cares about your problem and that will help you navigate the legal system. We’re truly helping people achieve justice in their lives, one person at a time.”

Peter Honingmann, a staff attorney at CARPLS, joined the New Leaf team knowing that this program will be a huge game changer for the people we serve.

“Clients frequently contact us trying to improve their lives, only to be blocked by issues from their past, some of which they cannot change. However, with the New Leaf program, people will be able to expunge or seal criminal charges, and this will immediately provide them with more opportunities to find better housing and employment.”

Tarish Morris, a paralegal at CARPLS, notes, “This program will be extremely beneficial for our clients who are trying to correct their past. This program can help our clients increase their chances of finding employment. I hope people take advantage of this free help.”

Nancy Chaidez, a Paralegal at CARPLS for eight years, empathizes with the difficulties many people face when cannabis charges follow them.

“I am looking forward to being part of the team that helps them get their lives back.”

Mary Flynn, a staff attorney at CARPLS, takes an analytical approach and hopes to see a huge impact on Illinois.

“This is statewide, and it’s something different. The first person who registered for the project was really nice and he was happy to learn that people would actually get back to him. The program helps people get on with their lives.

We don’t know who is going to be finding out about this. We’re looking forward to seeing what the real issues are and why people want to sign up. Our presumption is that people want to qualify for housing and jobs that they’ve been kept from. I can’t wait to help.”

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