Article: ‘Does the punishment fit the crime?’

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‘Does the punishment fit the crime?’

Tatiana Walk-Morris, 14 April 2021

In 2018, William Thomas C. was caught with 18 pounds of cannabis a few days after returning home from vacation with his grandchildren. He was charged with cannabis trafficking and manufacturing or delivering more than 5,000 grams of cannabis, according to court records. Before then, William, better known as Tom, ran a family farm and a lawn care business in Bloomington, Illinois. Since Tom has been serving a nine-year sentence at Centralia Correctional Center, his sister Tara C. has managed his businesses and talks with him several times a week.

Tara, who asked for her last name to be withheld to preserve her career, said Tom suffered a terrible motorcycle accident several years ago and turned to marijuana to help with his pain management as an alternative to prescription medications. During Tom’s trial, his family had to sell assets to pay for his attorney’s fees. But following his conviction, Tara reached out to the Last Prisoner Project, a Denver-based nonprofit which advocates for the freedom and welfare of people imprisoned for cannabis convictions, to help free Tom.

Tom is one of dozens incarcerated on cannabis offenses despite Illinois legalizing marijuana for recreational and medicinal use. In Illinois and in other states where cannabis has been legalized, there’s generally no resentencing or commutation procedures for those who are incarcerated, the only mechanism for expungement or sealing cannabis criminal records, said Sarah Gersten, executive director and general counsel of the Last Prisoner Project.

Now that the state has legalized recreational and medicinal cannabis use, 90 inmates remain incarcerated for offenses ranging from producing less than 200 cannabis plants to trafficking, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections’ March 31, 2021, prison population figures, which were the most recent statistics available. As the state expunges records for low-level cannabis crimes and dispensaries rake in millions in cannabis sales—recreational sales reached nearly $109 million in March 2021, according to the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation—nonprofits have stepped up to help free people incarcerated on cannabis offenses and remove those convictions from their records.

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