State Rep. Curtis J. Tarver II (D-25th, right) shows a constituent, Alejandra Avila, the Illinois General Assembly’s website, www.ilga.gov

Rep. Curtis J. Tarver II (D-25th), who has criticized the state's legalization of marijuana for being insufficiently focused on criminal justice reform and equity for people of color, says his top priority when the Illinois House reconvenes on Jan. 28 is his bill to automatically expunge people's juvenile criminal records for pot-related offenses.

"The social equity piece is absolutely missing, no matter how much we say 'this is the most progressive in the nation,'" Tarver said at a meeting with a handful of constituents attended in South Chicago. "I think we have a long way to go. My concern is that when a bill is run and primarily sold to Black and Brown individuals as a criminal justice reform bill, then you have Black and Brown people taking their eye off the ball, which is the fact that this is actually a money bill — this is a generational wealth bill."

He observed that all of the licensed dispensaries in Chicago are owned by white men; in December, the City Council's Black Caucus nearly passed a bill to block recreational pot sales until July in protest — though the gubernatorial administration says that social equity considerations would be used in awarding two outstanding city medical dispensary licenses, which may begin selling recreational pot before the state gives out 75 licenses in May.

"It's the reason I introduced a bill saying, 'Hey, look: if someone was a juvenile and had a cannabis-related offense, automatically expunge it,'" Tarver said. "If we're not going to do criminal justice reform for anybody else, let's at least do it for children who made mistakes as children so that stuff doesn't follow them into adulthood."

Tarver, whose district is serpentine, going from North Kenwood down the lakefront to the Indiana state line, filed House Bill 4009 on Dec. 27; State Rep. Kambium Buckner (D-26th), whose district covers southern Kenwood west of Woodlawn Avenue and Hyde Park west of Ellis Avenue signed on as chief co-sponsor three days later.

On the criminal justice side, Tarver thinks those who have been arrested for having more than 30 grams of pot should have their records automatically expunged. Currently, the state is only automatically expunging records for possession of less than 30 grams, or around 1 ounce. Any more than that requires a visit to court.

"People who are pedaling not huge amounts of marijuana probably don't have access to attorneys to go through the expungement process, or we'd have heard about a lot more of them going through that process on Jan. 1, 2020," Tarver said. "I've not heard anything about this wave of people who've had 35 grams or 100 grams."

Tarver said there is not much of an appetite in Springfield to radically rework the legalization framework, but he is hopeful HB 4009 will have legs. If it does, he thinks it would bode well for future legislative action.

"If we can pass something as simple as 'if you were a juvenile and made a mistake and had some kind of cannabis-related offense, we're going to automatically expunge that,'" he said, "then I think there's the appetite to actually do something that effectuates change. Am I optimistic? I'm hopeful."

Buckner is proposing legislation to create state-chartered banks for the marijuana industry which, because its product is illegal under U.S. law, cannot use banks insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Tarver called it "a reasonable idea" and suggested a way to find more participation of people of color in those state banks.

Tarver said his concerns in the next legislative session go beyond marijuana.

"We're headed back down to Springfield in less than two weeks; I think it's going to be an incredibly busy session again," he said. "I don't think it'll be as many huge bills — like the capital bill, the casino bill, those types of things. I think now you're going to see more member initiatives."

Tarver anticipates a revival of the bill to create an elected Chicago Board of Education  — a bill to that effect passed the House last year but died in the Senate. And he supports Buckner's bill to manage the funds Chicago Public Schools receives for low-income, English language-learning and special educational resources from a per-pupil formula to an evidence-based one. A member of the K-12 Appropriations Committee, Tarver also called for more funding of public education said he would advocate for it in private consultations and public meetings.

"Even the public schools in Hyde Park look a lot different than the public schools in South Chicago, which look different than South Shore," Tarver observed. "Each of those neighborhoods and communities have individual needs that should be addressed."

He also voiced support for local State Sen. Robert Peters' (D-13th) proposal to end cash bail in Illinois.

Tarver's lakefront erosion task force, formed with Buckner and South Side Ald. Greg Mitchell (7th), held its first meeting earlier this month, and he stressed the importance of cooperation among local, state and federal government to combat the lakefront erosion Chicago is experiencing. He said that funding the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' study is a cardinal concern to figure out the steps that need to be taken.

Asked about the legal issues faced by House Speaker Michael Madigan, who recently spent $275,000 to settle the sexual harassment case a former campaign worker filed against his campaign committees among other legal fees, Tarver said he is not close enough to anyone in Springfield to have any insights beyond that which the media reports.

Nevertheless, "Springfield needs to change," Tarver said, adding that he has "seen the spotlight on several individuals." He said Gov. J.B. Pritzker agrees that the state government's culture needs reform, anticipating "some things that are kind of reactionary" in the coming session.

Tarver also responded to a WBEZ investigation that found a former state lobbyist and Madigan confident sought leniency for a state worker for having "kept his mouth shut" about a rape in Champaign.

"Anybody who is covering up a rape and a sexual assault — I think it's despicable," he said. "I hope that, if that's the case, then whoever it is is brought to justice." He called for more than just an administrative investigation, though he deferred on who should do it, suggesting the federal government or a state's attorney.

Tarver said he held the meeting at the Rey B. Gonzalez Children and Family Center, 3050 E. 92nd St. run by the El Valor social service provider, out of a desire for constituents to not have to travel to his office in Hyde Park, 1303 E. 53rd St., to meet with him.

East Side resident Alejandra Avila referenced the distance the 25th District spans, saying she also came to ask him "why it's taken you a year to finally come down here." Tarver called the question "semi-fair" and referenced the time he has had to spend in Springfield,  meetings on the far South Side held away from constituents and funding he got for El Valor in the capital bill. He said his office has hired a Spanish language-speaking intern.

"If people tell us what's going on this way and want me to be present — and I'm not in Springfield and don't have a prior obligation — I'll be happy to," he said.

Tarver, an attorney who lives in North Kenwood, was first elected last year to succeed longtime representative and House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie. He faces no opponents in the March 17 Democratic primary election. He said he has learned a lot since last year, centrally from hearing from constituents about the issues important to them.

"One of the things that I think has been beneficial for me is, outside of knocking on people's doors and showing up to events when you want their vote, you'd be amazed at how appreciative people are when you show up on their door and you're not asking for their vote," he said. "People want to see you when you don't want anything from them."

He said his proudest accomplishment last session was the law, in effect this month, that makes it a civil rights violation to commit housing discrimination based on a person's arrest history.

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