Jan 31 2012

“Jumping Through Hoops:” Barriers to Erasing Criminal Records…

I am currently working with a coalition of other groups in Illinois to pass a bill to reform the juvenile expungement process. Juvenile expungement is intended to provide people with juvenile criminal records with a chance to erase them. This is intended to make it more likely that they can qualify for financial aid, that they can apply and be hired for jobs, and that they can qualify for certain professional licenses (like nursing).

As part of our process to pass the bill, we have been meeting with various stakeholders including legislators and law enforcement representatives. For the most part, folks have been supportive of our common-sense reform measures. Our biggest opponent however is the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office which refuses to adopt any sort of reasonable posture in negotiating with our coalition.

After our latest meeting with a group of stakeholders representing the legal system this morning, I am reflecting on the fact that many people are just downright hostile against young people. The assumption seems to be that if they aren’t getting their records expunged; it’s their fault. In the world that some of these people inhabit, fees are not an obstacle to expungement “because they can afford to pay.” Additionally, the system should remain as onerous as possible because they want youth to “jump through hoops” in order to clear their records. When it is pointed out that thousands of young people are arrested each year and their cases aren’t referred to court. The response remains the same. We don’t care if these are mere arrests (some of which are surely false arrests), we just want to make them “take responsibility” for their actions.

Given the reality that almost 30% of youth in the U.S. will be arrested by the age of 23, I can’t help but think that we will be reaching a tipping point soon. When the main people who were being adversely impacted by arrest records were youth of color, there was no urgency to reform the expungement process. However now that many more young white people find themselves caught in the net of increasing police control, I wonder how much more amenable the powers that be will be to expungement reform in the future.

It’s a sad but true fact that only when they see these as “their” kids too will they find a willingness to make the system more fair, just, and cost-effective. You can learn more about our efforts by visiting the UN-MARKED CAMPAIGN BLOG.

Jan 03 2012

Modern Day Slave Patrols in D.C.

Apparently the Washington Metropolitan Police has been overzealous (to say the least) about barring African American males from public housing properties. Before last week, I had never heard of the term “barring notice” which is defined as:

a tool that property owners and/or persons lawfully entitled to possession of property (and their agents whom they have approved to serve in such a capacity) may use to restrict an individual who is not lawfully present on their private property to ensure safety at the premises. If individuals violate a barring notice by appearing on the property after having received notice that they are not permitted on the property, they may face arrest and/or prosecution for unlawful entry on the premises.

These “barring notices” are an outgrowth of the War on Drugs. In an article on this topic titled “Kept Out: Responding to Public Housing No-Trespass Policies,” Elena Goldstein explains:

Typically, a PHA (public housing authority) that hopes to reduce drug sales or crime on housing development property will ask its local police department to warn nonresidents who enter the development that they are trespassing. Persons issued a warning are placed on a no-trespass list, maintained by the housing development manager or, in some cases, by the police themselves; if they return to the development, they are arrested.

The DC Metro Police have apparently taken the concept of a “barring notice” as a license to harass young African American males at will. A group of organizers and advocates are fed up with the practice:

Outrage and exasperation have emerged over the alleged treatment of young African-American men in our area.

Dozens have received “barring notices” from the DC Housing Authority Police and Metropolitan Police officers, forbidding them to visit local housing projects.

A spokeswoman for the DC Housing Authority says people are barred for engaging in any activity that threatens the health, safety or peaceful enjoyment of the premises by other residents. But some of the men insist they’re being barred simply for the way they look.

“I don’t even have a jaywalking ticket. They can’t even tell me why they slammed me on the ground, turning my pockets inside and out. Put their foot on my neck and laughing about it. Saying something to his partner about he’s going to jail tonight,” said Isaiah Green, a 21 year-old.

Green received one of the 67 “bar notices” issued so far this year at Woodland Terrace.

“Enough is enough. We are human beings. We’re not animals. We don’t deserve to go in cages. I have no record. I have never been convicted of any crime,” said Trayon White.

White was also arrested at Woodland Terrace. The Board of Education member was told he was not authorized to be on the property.

“And I was trying to figure out, ‘How can I be unauthorized to be on the property when I have an office and a contract with DC Housing Authority to serve on the property?'”

After a public outcry, the charges were dismissed, but White says his name is still in the DC court system.

“He’s branded for life and he did nothing. He has a Master’s degree. He’s a public servant. Duly elected. And they told him they can’t go certain places in the city,” said Johnny Barnes, a D.C. attorney.

Here’s the story of a 30 year man named Gary Lover who has been harassed while trying to visit his sick mother:

In 2008, he sat on the front porch of his mother’s home in the Lincoln Heights Housing when a jump out squad approached him asking for identification. When Lover questioned why he was being frisked, officers pushed him, charged him with disorderly conduct, arrested and took him to the Sixth District Police Station. He stayed overnight, went to court the following day and the case was dismissed.

“I never received any notification from the court, police or housing that I was barred from my mother’s place,” said Lover. For the next two years, Lover was arrested eight times for unlawful entry when he visited his mother. “Each time I was set free. The cases were not papered yet it still continues,” said Lover.

Wanda Lover, Gary’s mother, said she attributes her poor health to not being allowed to see her sons at her home of 25 years. “Both my sons are in the same predicament for no reason. It’s terrible. I’m angry because if I want to see either of my sons I have to meet them away from my home.”

“Sometimes police bang on my window shouting for my sons to come outside when they’re not even at my house. My sons haven’t committed any crimes. If something happens to me I can’t call my sons for help. It must be stopped,” said the ailing mother.

It appears that for some young men in D.C. “standing or visiting while black” qualifies as criminal activity. It seems to me that this is the equivalent of the Arizona “papers please” laws where people suspected of being undocumented immigrants can be stopped by law enforcement at will. It also reminds me of the slave patrols of old.

Sep 15 2011

The New Scarlet Letter: Juvenile Criminal Records (Part 3)

Mariah and I arrived at juvenile court just before 11 am today. I had a meeting at 9 am so we couldn’t get there earlier. We walked right in to meet with Lizzie who is an attorney working for the Legal Assistance Foundation. Lizzie runs a juvenile expungement help desk at the Court on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9 to noon. This service is invaluable as she screens Rap sheets and tell people whether their “offense” is eligible for expungement. She also helps folks to complete the multi-page petition as well as the application for a fee waiver.

Let’s talk about how much it costs in Illinois to expunge a juvenile criminal record – $124. It costs $64 per petition that you file and then $60 per court order for the state police. So if you are expunging more than one arrest or conviction, you need to pay $64 per “offense.” You must file a petition for EACH OFFENSE you want to expunge. So imagine is a young person in Chicago has five juvenile mere arrests (no convictions or perhaps even no petitions filed) on his or her record, it would cost $380 to expunge those arrests ($64 per petition and then a fee of $60 per court order). That is a lot of money for anyone in this economic climate. The $380 are only the fees associated with the actual expungement process. In many cases, lawyers charge up to $1000 to help a young person to expunge their record(s). My advice to anyone is DON’T PAY A LAWYER to do this. It is tedious but you can and should file PRO-SE (do it yourself). Look for the FREE RESOURCES that are available to help you through the process.

After Mariah completed the petition for expungement as well as the application for a fee waiver, Lizzie accompanied us to the Clerk of the Court’s office to submit the petition. If you have the cash, you can pay at the office. If you do not, you should hold on to your application for a fee waiver until your hearing in front of the judge. The young woman at the front desk checked to make sure that all relevant information was included on the petition and on the fee waiver. The Clerk’s office then assigns a hearing date. Initially, they said that Mariah could see a judge in 45 days (that would have been late October). I insisted that she needed an EXPEDITED hearing. They asked why and I told them. She was assigned a hearing date in two weeks – September 30th. It helps to have an advocate with you who knows the system and can push back.

I will update everyone about what happens at the Hearing on September 30th. In the meantime for more information about the Juvenile Expungement process in Illinois as well as a copy of the petition forms, you can click HERE. If you are a resident of Illinois, I encourage you to join our UN-marked Campaign which is an effort to change the juvenile expungement laws and practices in the state.

Sep 14 2011

The New Scarlet Letter: Juvenile Criminal Records (Part 2)

We walked into 3510 S. Michigan Avenue (which is our Chicago Police Headquarters) at around 10:50 am this morning. We walked through metal detectors over to the central information kiosk. We were greeted by a police officer. We told him that we needed to get a copy of Mariah’s juvenile RAP sheet. He asked her if she had been arrested before her 17th birthday and for her name. He asked if she had a government issued ID and she gave him her state ID card. He then called someone and passed the phone over to Mariah. She was asked again for her name and also for her date of birth. She was then told to have a seat in the lobby.

We were the only two people sitting in a large lobby area. It was empty. Mariah leaned over to me and said: “It’s a police station but I don’t feel safe here.” She was nervous. I passed her the journal that I was writing in and told her to jot down her thoughts. I said that it sometimes helps to write down how one feels as a way to move past those feelings. With her permission, I will share her stream of consciousness musings with you.

I didn’t really have a bad experience but of course it wasn’t a good one. They all seem so uptight. This is taking too long or maybe time is going really slow. What is a rap sheet anyway? The elevator dings but it’s still not for me. I’m feeling uneasy seeing all the folders and guns. Shorts? it’s pretty cold for that. I wonder what they’re doing. I’m the only one here waiting for my file. My stomach is feeling weird. I wonder if that’s an FBI agent with the microphone in his ear. It isn’t very discreet. There’s a police officer/soldier. Interesting. So does the army have their own police but they all have guns? At least 20 min! What are they really doing. It takes longer to get my rap sheet than for the guy to get his gun registered. I just knew MK was gonna get up. And I just knew that police officer at the front desk was going to say something. I hope they don’t take longer on purpose.

Mariah is referring to me when she mentions that she “just knew MK was gonna get up.” After 30 minutes without service, I went back to the information desk to ask if they could call upstairs to see what the hold up was. He dialed and handed me the phone. I was promptly told by the person handling juvenile investigations: “When we’re ready, we’ll bring it down.” It took us 45 minutes from the time we arrived until we got the rap sheet. If you’ve never seen a juvenile rap sheet, here’s a copy below:

The disposition listed for Mariah is “Informal Adjustment (Released to Parent).” That’s right boys and girls, the supposed incident that has led Mariah to receive a letter saying that she cannot practice nursing involves an informal station adjustment that she received at 13 years old.

We weren’t done yet. We got into my car and drove over to juvenile court. Our goal there was to get the Clerk of the Court to write a letter stating that there was a negative record of court proceedings. When we arrived, Mariah explained what she needed. The young woman at the front desk was very pleasant and asked to see a government-issued ID. We sat and waited for about 20 minutes while the letter was being written. We were given juvenile expungement information packets and encouraged to have the record erased. I will have more more say about that process tomorrow. I will be accompanying Mariah back to court to talk with a pro-bono lawyer who will help her to file a petition to have her record expunged. Below is a copy of the letter that the Clerk of the Court provided:

All in all we spent 4.5 hours today getting the necessary paperwork to send a letter to the Department of Professional Regulation requesting that they proceed to reviewing Mariah’s application for licensure. Tomorrow, we will spend more hours beginning the costly and tedious process of expunging her juvenile “criminal” record. Stay tuned…

Sep 13 2011

The New Scarlet Letter: Juvenile Criminal Records (A Series)

I woke up this morning with a plan for how my day would go. Then as is often the case, my plans had to change. Let me tell you a story.

Early this morning, I got a call from a young woman who I have known since she was a freshman in high school. She was a member of a youth-led social change project that I co-founded with a group of young women of color. She has been an anti-violence activist and is a budding anti-prison organizer. The young woman who I will call Mariah just turned 21 in June. In that same month, she graduated as a registered nurse from a local community college. We were all so excited and are so proud of her accomplishment. This summer, Mariah successfully passed her nursing boards. She then officially applied for her nursing license. She needs a license in order to practice as a nurse in Illinois. This morning, she received this letter from the Illinois Department of Financial & Professional Regulation:

The key sections of the letter read:

Why you might ask?

Your FBI fingerprint results indicate that you were arrested 5/10/2004 in Chicago, IL and charged with BATTERY/BODILY HARM.

Mariah’s so-called arrest occurred when she was in the 8th grade. She and a friend got into a physical fight at school. The police were called and both young women were taken to the local precinct. They stayed there for less than an hour until their parents could pick them up. They were promptly released. Mariah had forgotten about this incident until she received the letter from the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation today. The case never went to juvenile court and Mariah didn’t even know that she had been actually arrested. Mariah’s situation is by no means unique. Thousands of young people in Chicago face a similar circumstance.

As a way to document the difficult, costly, and tedious process of expunging Mariah’s juvenile criminal record, I will be posting regular updates on this blog. Tomorrow, her journey to expunge her juvenile criminal record begins with a trip to 3510 S. Michigan Avenue to get a copy of her juvenile RAP sheet. I will be accompanying her and will report back on how it went.

When I write about the school to prison pipeline and other such issues, I worry that people think that it is just an abstraction. It isn’t. Real young people are being caught up in this process. Real young people’s lives are being impacted by juvenile criminal records that they don’t even know they have. This is not an abstraction.

Jun 14 2011

Congratulations, Texas Continues to Lead the Nation in Terrible Ideas…

I have to admit that I did a double take when I read this::

Texas is close to enacting a law that would provide teachers with detailed information about the criminal histories of their students, opening juvenile files that have always been confidential and are unavailable in most states.

The legislation, spurred by the fatal stabbing of a high school teacher in Tyler in 2009, is adding to a national debate over whether teacher safety should outweigh the rights of young offenders, who traditionally have moved through the juvenile justice system with their privacy protected.

The new disclosure rules were passed by legislators with little public attention last month. A spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry said the governor is “thoughtfully” reviewing the measure before deciding whether to sign it.

The use of the word “thoughtfully” in connection with Rick Perry is surely a joke. The governor who oversaw the killing of an innocent man is not going to care about keeping juvenile criminal records confidential.

Here is the most distressing part of this entire gambit:

Texas teacher groups strongly support the measure.

“We feel like we can deal with things when we’re in the know,” said Grace Mueller, a middle school teacher in San Marcos and an officer with the Texas Classroom Teachers Association. “When you’re blindsided, that’s when you get fearful or put yourself or someone else in harm’s way.”

Let me say this, as someone who formerly taught high school students and currently teaches college classes, I have the highest and deepest respect for educators. I think that it is the most difficult and most unappreciated vocation out there. All one needs to do is to look at what Republican governors are doing to collective bargaining rights for educators and at how many states are slashing teacher positions to understand how undervalued educators are in this country. That said, this is patently wrong and teachers’ unions and groups should STRONGLY oppose this law as a deep violation of privacy and as an enemy to social justice. I agree completely with Lawrence Wojcik quoted in the article who says:

“A kid walks into a classroom where the teacher knows all the details of the offense, the teacher would have to be super-human to be open-minded,” said Lawrence Wojcik, a Chicago attorney who chairs the American Bar Association’s juvenile justice committee.

What the hell is going on here? Seriously, what is the teacher going to be able to do once he/she receives information about a young person’s juvenile criminal record? Will the teacher have access to additional resources to deal with any potential needs that the student may have? Absolutely not. Let’s also be blunt, most of our elementary and high school teachers are white women and most of the youth in Texas with criminal records will be youth of color. Will this disclosure increase the likelihood of forming strong relationships between students and their teachers? I submit once again that the answer to this is a resounding “No.”

The article offers this important insight that I completely agree with:

However, the scope of the measure alarms some juvenile justice advocates. They worry that students who have committed crimes will be automatically placed in alternative education programs or subjected to other prejudicial treatment. They also point out that the written arrest notifications could haunt students even if they are cleared.

This is a terrible idea. It really is.