The Unusual Way Juvenile Offenders Can Get Rid of Their Criminal Record

In 2012, there were 25,000 juvenile arrests in Chicago. A new app makes it easier to erase them.

(Photo: Jonathan Alcom/Reuters)

Jun 27, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Nicole Pasulka is a writer and reporter who lives in New York City. She has written for Mother Jones, BuzzFeed, The Believer, and the New York Observer.

The young man’s mother knew he needed to clear his criminal record. If he didn’t, a youthful indiscretion would follow him for the rest of his life.

She’d already saved up $800 for lawyer’s fees when she heard about, a free Web application that serves as a guide through the opaque and sometimes expensive process of erasing juvenile criminal records.

Chicago residents can log on and answer questions about whatever incident they want removed from their record. The app will let them know if they’re eligible for expungement, and they can submit an application to a pro bono lawyer, who follows up with the request.

That day the pro bono lawyer was Sharlyn Grace, an attorney at the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago. The woman and her son “came in and filled out the paperwork, and it was free and easy,” Grace said.

This story is the exception, not the rule, when it comes to erasing a juvenile record in the city of Chicago or in Cook County. There were 25,000 juvenile arrests there in 2012. Almost all could have been expunged, but almost none were. That year, only 70 expungements were requested.

“We found out that all these young people are getting arrested and have these criminal records and are not getting them expunged,” said Chris Rudd, who facilitates the Juvenile Justice Council as part of a nonprofit organization called Mikva Challenge, and who started managing the project.

When local high school and college students participating in the Juvenile Justice Council discovered that a lot of people had records and weren’t expunging them, they looked for existing resources that could help. There wasn’t much out there, so they dreamed up

“It was like, these suck, let’s build something,” Rudd said. The group found a coder who was willing to do the work for free and received a $35,000 Prototype grant from the Knight Foundation.

Since the app launched last year, 8,000 people have visited it, and 150 have put in their information and asked to be contacted by an attorney. Both Grace and Rudd feel has been as useful for raising awareness about expungement as it has been for erasing criminal records.

“We have a pervasive culture of innocent till proven guilty. But that’s not the way records work," Grace said.

People often assume their juvenile record is cleared automatically when they turn 18. In Chicago, and most other cities, that’s not the case. You don’t have to be charged with or convicted of a crime to get a criminal record; just getting arrested will do it. Even for those found not guilty, “that record is not erased. You have to go through the process,” said Grace.

Not expunging a record can have serious fallout. Grace has seen people denied housing assistance and public housing. Criminal records have kept people from getting jobs working with kids, in health care, in home care, in private security, at the airport, and even at the park district. A record can also interfere with college admissions. But once the record is erased, “in general, with a very small number of exceptions, that those hurdles won’t be a problem anymore,” she said.

Hopefully, the app will be a little less necessary in the future. Just this month, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation, effective Jan. 1, 2015, that would automatically expunge all juvenile arrests as long as they aren’t serious felonies or sex offenses.

Outreach efforts of the JCC and lawyers like Grace have helped raise awareness in Chicago. But juveniles across the country need their records expunged. Erasing a criminal record can significantly improve the economic and social prospects for young people. According to Grace, it’s a way of “saying enough time has passed; people have changed, and people are less culpable as juveniles. We want them to move on, and we’re not going to keep them from being the best member of society that they can be.”