Bill attacks Illinois’ “worst in nation” system of expunging juvenile records

Saying that “stigmatizing…young people makes no sense,” Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle announced Monday her support for a new proposed law to make it easier to expunge juvenile police records.

Joined by legislators and juvenile justice advocates at a press conference at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law, Preckwinkle said the current system to expunge juvenile records is costly and dysfunctional, and discourages youth from removing past arrest records that can haunt them as they later seek housing or education.

The new bill would require police agencies to automatically expunge juvenile arrest reports each year if charges are not brought. The bill would also require juvenile courts to expunge records of cases two years after the closing of all but the most serious cases as long as the juvenile has not picked up new charges.

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The bill also puts in place a fine for anyone who illegally shares juvenile records.

State Rep. Justin Slaughter (D), a sponsor of the bill, said during the press conference that Illinois is the “worst in the nation” when it comes to expunging juvenile records.

The issue drew statewide attention in 2014 when the Illinois legislature tasked the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission to examine the availability of confidential juvenile records and the expungement process.

In an April 2016 report outlining its findings, the commission wrote that the state’s treatment of juvenile records was “failing” its citizens. The report also recommended solutions, and noted that the existence of juvenile records can seriously impede individuals in their attempts to find work, housing and educational opportunities later in life.

The commission found that the state’s juvenile expungement system was dysfunctional and plagued by chronic issues: Eligibility requirements for expungement are extremely restrictive.  Fewer than one-third of one percent of juvenile records are expunged statewide. The process for expungement is too complex and costly. Police agencies fail to inform juveniles that expungement is an option, despite their legal obligation to do so.

The bill would expand on a process that began last year, when the legislature passed and Gov. Bruce Rauner signed into law a bill that would make it easier for juveniles to seek expungement of their records. Prior to the new law, juveniles had to wait until they were 18 years old to begin the process; the current law permits youth regardless of their age to seek expungement as soon as they are cleared of charges.

Illinois State Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D), another of the bill sponsors, said that while there have been other efforts to ease the juvenile expungement process, this bill is the most comprehensive effort to date. And despite the deadlock in the Illinois statehouse, Nekritz said during the press conference, the state legislature has been able to come together on bipartisan issues like criminal justice reform.

Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown also came out in support of the bill Monday, and said that for years the Clerk’s office has worked to get youth to attend the county’s expungement summits. Despite their best efforts, “the young people just did not come,” she said.

Between 2004 and 2014, only 4,028 juvenile records were expunged in Cook County. In that same time period, more than 320,000 juvenile arrests were reported to the Illinois State Police, according to the Juvenile Justice Commission’s report.

Getting a juvenile record expunged can cost up to $320, according to the report. And in Cook County, the commission wrote, the Clerk’s Office charges a fee for each individual arrest, which can quickly add up despite the fact that the juvenile may have never actually been charged with a crime.

The new bill would help people like 19-year-old Angel Gandy, who picked up her first juvenile case when she was 16. Gandy, who hasn’t been able to get her record expunged, said it is something that is always in the back of her mind when she thinks about applying for housing, jobs or anything with a background check.

“No one should have to be held back in fear of discrimination because of something they did as teenagers,” Gandy said during the press conference. “We all make mistakes and some of us want to change.”