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Activists call for true second chance: Path to erasing juvenile records

Bill passed in Senate could free some from youth-time court history

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Activists call for true second chance: Path to erasing juvenile records
Stephanie Bellapianta, a Teens Leading the Way member, spoke at the State House on the need for record expungement.

Groups pushing for measures that would set individuals free from the stigma of youth-time involvement in the criminal justice system received a partial victory last week. Members of Teens Leading the Way, Roca, UTEC and others gathered at the State House last Wednesday in support of bills that would allow some juvenile criminal records to be expunged following completion of their sentence.

At the moment, records only can be sealed — meaning employers, colleges and housing authorities see they are there but cannot read them — and only via requests made years after the sentence is served. If implemented, the bills would provide a way to have the records completely erased.

Just having a record attached to your name can damage chances with college admissions, entry into public housing and acceptance at certain jobs, according information from Teens Leading the Way and other advocates.

Jamel Bonilla, a youth organizer with UTEC, spoke at the State House of a friend who was denied entry into the military because of his involvement in a fight when he was fourteen.

“He thought he didn’t have a future, because he has a record,” Bonilla said. Expungement could change that.

Those gathered last week to push for expungement included Teens Leading the Way, a statewide youth-led coalition focused on policymaking; Roca, a social enterprise that helps at-risk youth in Eastern and Western Massachusetts get back on track; and UTEC, a Lowell-based organization focused on transitioning youth from gang-involvement to educational and employment pathways.

The child is not the adult

Youth grow up and, if allowed, mature and change, teen activists emphasized.

The brain is not fully developed until age 25, Stephanie Bellapianta, a Teens Leading the Way member, told the gathering. In particular, the areas of the brain governing judgment, impulsivity and reasoning are still developing. Some suggest that the need to give youth greater leniency is underscored by the existence of a juvenile justice system separate from the adult system.

And often it is minor incidents that mar a young person’s record for life. Ninety-five percent of youth in the juvenile justice system are there for nonviolent offenses, according to a UTEC fact sheet. Individuals even acquire criminal records for cases in which they are arrested but not convicted — for instance, if the person is found not guilty or the case is dismissed, according to MassLegalHelp.

Serving sentenced time, but no more

Criminal records can prevent an individual from joining their families in public housing, securing employment, getting into college and adopting children later in life. In its 2010 report, Center for Community Alternatives Inc. stated that 66 percent of colleges surveyed reported that they collect criminal record information on applicants. CCA found requests for criminal record information often discourage would-be students and prompt them to drop their applications, and that a significant number of college admissions officials regard past convictions as a negative factor when considering applicants.

Record deletion means a true second chance, advocates said, and, as such, can have a marked impact on recidivism rates.

New legislation

Advocates at the State House commended a bill, lead-sponsored by Sen. Karen Spilka, that passed in the senate the night before. The bill would extend the option of record elimination for adjudications and misdemeanors committed by an individual before she or he turned 18, making it appear as if there never was a record.

There are stipulations in the bill: The individual must have completed their sentencing or disposition and not be found guilty or adjudicated delinquent of a new offense before or after completing the sentence to be eligible. And a judge must approve a petition for the expungement.

Currently, the bill is with the House Committee on Ways and Means. House. Rep. Aaron Vega told the gathered assembly of youth and youth workers that even if the bill does not pass this session, which ends July 31, it has a chance in the future and that advocacy is building legislators’ awareness.

“There’s a lot of support for [the bill],” Vega added.

The proposed legislation is a step forward but does not answer all concerns. For one, it does not grant record erasure automatically, something many advocates seek, but rather requires judicial petition.

Advocates cite a 2014 Michigan State study finding that juvenile offenders living in states where records are automatically wiped out are 13 percent more likely to avoid recidivating after age 20, approximately 7 percent more likely to graduate from college and likely to have higher earnings. The study’s author found that petition-based eradication was utilized infrequently, and noted the process may come with barriers such as fees and required knowledge of the petitioning process.

Broad goals

Several who gathered at the State House said there are societal benefits to extending the expungement further, to apply to felonies — a provision removed from the original version of the senate bill — and adult crimes.

Jamel Bonilla said he has two felonies on his record from when he was 17: one for gun possession, the other for armed robbery. He served his time and since then has tried to turn his life around. Bonilla is enrolled in college studying psychology, works as an organizer at UTEC and wants to be a counselor. He said his record has prompted would-be employers to turn him down and prevented him from working with youth.

Sean Hansen, a case manager at Roca, told the Banner that although his record — drug possession when he was 17 and 18 — has not, to his knowledge, denied him employment opportunities, it remains in the back of his mind when he applies for a job.

Through his work at Roca, Hansen said he has seen people with serious records make strong improvements. A recent case is a young man who attempted murder five years ago, during his late teens. Since then, the young man has had trouble getting a chance to make something better of his life. He landed a job at a university dining hall, but a week in, employers saw his record and let him go, Hansen said.

Rehabilitation, Hansen emphasizes, is possible. Individuals work with Roca for four years. During that time, he says, “I’ve seen people change incredibly.”