How It All Started
In the spring of 2013, the Cook County Justice Advisory Council (JAC), a county government body, and Mikva Challenge, a youth civic engagement nonprofit, teamed up to start the Cook County Juvenile Justice Council (JJC). The JJC is a group of 25 high school and college students who live in Cook County. During its inaugural summer, the JJC was tasked with generating recommendations to reduce the number of youth in the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center—a weighty assignment, no doubt. Chris Rudd, a Mikva staffer with a community organizing background and a passion for social justice, became the JJC's director.
Every summer, Mikva youth interns spend six weeks researching and answering a framing question focused on an issue area (e.g., juvenile justice, education, health, etc.). The 2013 framing question for the JJC was "What tools, policies, and practices do youth need to positively transition from corrections to community?" In order to tackle a manageable aspect of the huge juvenile justice system, the JJC scaled down and focused specifically on decreasing youth recidivism. JJC youth identified three factors that contributed to high rates of recidivism—education, employment, and housing—to help them answer the framing question. Answering the question wasn't the end, though. The JJC members were looking to generate solutions and turn their recommendations into concrete solutions for their peers. They identified three areas ripe for intervention:
- Tools: digital resources used to achieve a goal (i.e., apps, websites, etc.)
- Policies: rules, regulations, and laws
- Practices: actions put in place through partnership between youth, advocates, and public officials
The JJC students participated in a process of project-based learning while answering the framing question. Project-based learningis a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to a complex question, problem, or challenge. Some youth on the council had first-hand experience with the juvenile justice system, but others had to learn the system's many mechanisms and nuances from the very beginning. The youth learned about the juvenile justice system and the needs of young people in that system by engaging with expert guest speakers, readings, audio pieces, videos, and interviews with detained youth. Lack of employment opportunities quickly became a recurring theme during their research. The youth being interviewed reported that a huge barrier to employment was their "rap sheets," or arrest records. While more than 25,000 kids are arrested in Cook County each year, only a few hundred ever apply to expunge the records of their arrests. The youth on the JJC immediately understood that this was a problem in need of creative solutions.
At the end of their six-week summer "think tank," the JJC released their white paper, "What Tools, Policies and Practices Do Youth Need to Positively Transition from Corrections to Community?" The report includes 18 recommendations for Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, such as
- The Chicago Housing Authority should modify its one-strike policy;
- The Department of Juvenile Justice should work with the Cook County Land Bank Association, which buys foreclosed houses and apartment buildings, in order to transform those properties into transitional homes for youth; and
- Incarcerated or detained youth should have a counselor or educational advocate who works with them to develop an individualized Juvenile Educational Plan.
In the fall of 2013, JJC members presented their recommendations to the Cook County politicians and government bodies with power to change actual policies. Savvy about knowing how many asks they could afford, the youth chose four recommendations for President Preckwinkle. They returned to what their detained interviewees had told them they wanted: access to jobs. The JJC suggested that "There should be an app and website for people who are looking for information on expungement." President Preckwinkle loved the idea, and she tasked the youth members of the JJC with making the site a reality.
Finding Volunteers to Make a Website
Now that the JJC knew what they wanted to make, they just had to figure out how to make it. Throughout the fall of 2013, they searched far and wide for a volunteer coder or web developer willing to help them create an app and/or website that would help young people expunge their juvenile records. On Columbus Day, JJC members joined other youth leaders and community groups to host Justice. Power. Respect, a Youth Justice Awareness Month event. At this event, JJC members met Sharlyn Grace, author of the present article, from LAF (formerly the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago). As luck would have it, Grace was coordinating the free Juvenile Expungement Help Desk at the Cook County juvenile court, and outreach was the first word in her job description. With legal expertise now at their disposal, the JJC had two of the three components necessary to create the website in place.
Eventually, an earlier connection came through. When the JJC first came up with the idea for a website, they reached out to Smart Chicago, "a civic organization devoted to improving lives in Chicago through technology." Smart Chicago'sexecutive director, Dan O'Neil, had put Rudd in touch with Cathy Deng earlier in the year. Months later, Rudd reached out to Deng about the JJC expungement website. She immediately loved the idea, and all the pieces finally fell into place.
In December 2013, after weeks of meetings and creating and then recreating the site, Deng and the JJC got together for a "design thinking" session. According to Tim Brown, CEO and president of IDEO, the goal of design thinking is "matching people's needs with what is technologically feasible and viable as a business strategy." The JJC didn't have to think about a business strategy, but they were completely invested in matching young people's needs with technology and reflecting on the way young people actually engage with technology. JJC members combed through the draft site and identified language that wasn't youth-friendly, thought of ways that the site could better engage their peers, and even changed the color of the site to better appeal to young users. Throughout the process, JJC members challenged legal jargon and professional design recommendations—each time reminding the "experts" that what they were creating had to be appealing and useful to young people above all else. As a youth-driven project to help young people clear their juvenile records, the only important question became whether or not young people found it helpful and accessible. The design thinking session was a crucial step to maintain the integrity of the project. As usual, the youth in the room generated creative and original ideas that make the site authentically responsive to youth users' needs. Only six months after the JJC set out to solve juvenile recidivism, Expunge.io launched in January 2014!
Currently, Expunge.io walks users through a series of questions about their own experience with police and courts, eventually evaluating whether they are eligible for juvenile expungement now, in the future, or never. Users deemed eligible are able to submit a form with their contact information directly to the Juvenile Expungement Help Desk at LAF, after which an attorney will contact them and help them navigate the process. When the form is submitted, users who enter their email address automatically receive an email with the next steps, including picking up their rap sheet. Expunge.io also offers a page of "Frequently Asked Questions," an overview of the steps for seeking expungement, and the option to contact legal aid immediately with questions. A full Spanish language version of the site is accessible directly (see Expunge.io).
The State of Juvenile Records in Illinois
Let's go back and review the problem that Expunge.io set out to solve. In Illinois, juvenile records include the arrest records of people aged 17 and under, and all delinquency cases handled in juvenile court. Court records of juveniles who are charged as adults are subject to the adult criminal records laws, which are (predictably) much less generous than the juvenile provisions.
Records of juvenile arrests and court cases in Illinois are automatically sealed under Illinois's Juvenile Court Act (JCA). Automatic sealing is a victory for juvenile advocates in that it provides a clear protection for minors: their records are not publicly available. This protection is incomplete, however, in that the JCA lacks both any definition of the word "sealed" and specific language declaring the records off-limits to employers. Unlike the Criminal Identification Act, which applies to adult records, the JCA does not declare that sealed juvenile records are not to be considered by employers. Sealed juvenile records—remember, that's all records that are not expunged—are also excluded from the plain language of Illinois's Human Rights Act, which restricts employer use of arrest records; the Act prohibits use of only records sealed under the Criminal Identification Act. Many, many young people (and well-meaning parents, advisors, and other adult allies) believe that juvenile records are automatically expunged when the person turns 18. Of those who know that they are sealed, they usually believe that to be sufficient. Unfortunately, the sealed status of juvenile records has created confusion over their accessibility, and leads many to avoid seeking expungement.
Unfortunately, sealing is not enough. At the Juvenile Expungement Help Desk, many people arrive looking for help precisely because their juvenile records appeared in a background check. They are often surprised, and occasionally don't even remember being arrested. The records mostly showed up in fingerprint-based background checks like the kind often given to applicants for jobs in schools, medical care, or social work. Importantly, the records can also show up on background checks required by public or subsidized housing providers. The records that show up are not just for serious things, or even for court cases in which someone was found guilty of a serious crime. They are often records of mere arrests that were never even referred to juvenile court, and they are often for simple misdemeanors like the battery charges that result from a fight at school. At the help desk, volunteers encounter education students applying to student teach, individuals applying for crossing guard positions with Chicago Public Schools, home healthcare workers, and social workers, all of whom come to us when their background checks turned up juvenile records that were "sealed." One young woman we assisted had just graduated with a degree in social work and was applying for jobs in her field. She didn't even know that she had been arrested at age 10 until the record of it was returned through a fingerprint-based background check for her new job with an after-school youth program. Fourteen years later, she was surprised to learn she had been fingerprinted, and there was no charge listed on the rap sheet. We recommend reading Linda Paul's 2013 story, "Why Is It So Hard to Expunge Juvenile Records in Cook County?," for an account of a different young woman impacted by a juvenile arrest record at the beginning of her nursing career.
But back to the difference between automatically "sealed" juvenile records and sealed adult records in Illinois: For each of the jobs above, records of mere juvenile arrests regularly appear on background checks. Under the law governing adult criminal records, sealed records—including conviction records—will not appear. Thus it is that in Illinois, these automatically "sealed" juvenile records are more vulnerable to disclosure through fingerprint-based background checks than sealed adult records.
Why Juvenile Expungement?
In some ways, juvenile expungement is a low-hanging fruit. Most juvenile records in Illinois are eligible to be expunged eventually. In fact, the only records that are categorically ineligible for expungement are those in which the young person was found guilty of first-degree murder or a sex offense that would be a felony if committed by an adult. The vast majority of records—over 80 percent—are eligible for expungement right when the person with the record turns 18, provided the person does not have any open juvenile court cases. All juvenile arrests that don't result in the filing of charges in court, court cases that are dismissed, court cases in which the young person successfully completes a sentence of supervision, and court cases with guilty findings for low-level misdemeanors are eligible for expungement at age 18. For those sorts of records, eligibility does not depend on the other content of the individual's record; regardless of whether he or she has adult convictions or other juvenile cases that can't be expunged, those eligible arrests and/or cases will still be expungeable. Young people found guilty of felonies or class A misdemeanors must wait until they are at least 21 years old and five years has passed since they completed their sentence, and (the biggest hurdle for many) they must have no adult convictions of any kind.
Despite its availability, people were not taking advantage of juvenile expungement to erase their records. The numbers in Cook County bear that out starkly. With its concentration of social service agencies serving youth and legal service providers, Cook County should be well positioned to assist people hoping to clear their juvenile records. Yet in 2013, there were 26,255 juvenile arrests. Linda Paul, "No Criminal Charges? Wipe That Arrest Record Clean at 18" (May 12, 2014). Over 20,000 of those arrests did not result in petitions for adjudication filed in the juvenile court. That same year (2013), there were a mere 660 petitions for juvenile expungement filed in Cook County, by only 378 people. (Because each arrest requires a separate petition for expungement, people with more than one eligible arrest regularly file more than one petition.) Though most arrests that happen are not expungeable that same year because one must be at least 18 to receive a juvenile expungement, creating a lag in eligibility, previous years in Cook County had more juvenile arrests. Quite simply, only a very small percentage of the eligible people chose to expunge their records. Those were the statistics that the JJC confronted, and the reason they chose to focus on juvenile expungement as a solution.
Expunge.io in Action and the Future
Since launching in January 2014, Expunge.io has appeared in over 20 media stories. Some of our favorites are a JJC member's own expungement story as captured on State of the Re:Union and a DNAinfo article that interviews both Rudd and JJC members. Press about Expunge.io helped raise awareness about juvenile expungement, and within the first couple of months, over 150 people had submitted their eligibility forms to start the expungement process. Over a dozen people have completed the expungement process using the services of the Juvenile Expungement Help Desk after first discovering their eligibility through Expunge.io.
A very exciting benefit made possible by Deng's decision to use all open source software on GitHub is the ease with which youth advocates in other states who were inspired by Expunge.io can create their own versions. Since Expunge.io's launch, both Maryland and Louisiana have created their own versions of the website:
For its part, the JJC continues to improve and develop Expunge.io, including by working with Smart Chicago to host focus groups in which youth users navigate the website and document what they like and don't like. In late November, students at Fenger Academy High School in Roseland, a far Southside neighborhood in Chicago, became the most recent evaluators of Expunge.io's usefulness.
The JJC has also recently expanded its interests to adult records. Mikva Challenge and Smart Chicago have teamed up with Thrive Chicago and Cabrini Green Legal Aid to develop a website (similar to Expunge.io) that will provide people with information about the many different forms of relief from adult criminal records. Stay tuned to the JJC's website for information about what they'll do next!
Keywords: litigation, children's rights, Juvenile Justice Council, recidivism, juvenile record, expungement, technology