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Job and Future Stalled by Juvenile Records Thought to be Secret

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Job and Future Stalled by Juvenile Records Thought to be Secret

This former CPS student, arrested at school at age 11, got tripped up in a job search at 20.

If you look at all the arrests of juveniles in the city of Chicago, you’ll see that about a quarter of them-and that’s almost 5,000 a year-take place on the grounds of Chicago Public Schools. Even when that arrest is the end of it, when the case never goes to court, it can set in motion a record that sometimes can be seen by others. In part two of our look at juvenile records: the story of a young man whose arrest at 11 resurfaced and tripped him up when he was 20. It’s part of our juvenile justice series, Inside and Out.

FRANKLIN: Same windows, air conditioners, everything.

Franklin and I are walking past Morrill elementary, a public school on the south side of Chicago. This is where Franklin- for privacy, that’s a pseudonym we’ll use - this is where Franklin attended school from 6th to 8th grade. Most of his memories are good - except for that one dreadful period in which he was being bullied - and was terrified. And so at 11-years-old, he decided to take matters into his own hands.

FRANKLIN: Me, being a young guy at the time, very immature, I stuck a knife into my book bag, and I went to school.

Franklin didn’t use the knife that day. In fact he turned it in to a security guard he trusted. But the principal called the police and Franklin was taken to a Chicago police station where, he says, he was fingerprinted and handcuffed to a bench for eight hours. Luckily for him, no one pressed charges, his case never went to court, and in fact he was given a second chance. He was told

FRANKLIN: That if I completed this 6 month program, that my arrest record would be banished and thrown away and, you know, I will go back to a clean slate.

He went on to graduate high school and then began college studying to be an elementary school teacher.

FRANKLIN: I love kids. I adore them. They’re so fun to be around and I want to right wrongs and mistakes, and I love mentoring and helping, and giving someone else a blessing that I didn’t have.

When Franklin’s mom lost her bank job, he couldn’t afford college any more, so he dropped out to get a job. In February of this year, at 20-years-old, he was about to begin training as a census worker for the federal government. About 15 bucks an hour. It was a good job. Just one more step. Submit your fingerprints for a background check.

And that’s when he got some bad news. He received a letter from the Census Bureau saying, essentially, that a red flag had popped up next to his name on an FBI background check. He had thirty days to produce official court records explaining what this was all about.

FRANKLIN: Me and my mother scratchin’ our heads, thinking, maybe they got my name misspelled, maybe they got a social security number wrong.

By the time Franklin could trace the red flag on his record to his arrest at eleven -- an arrest for which he never went to court - it was too late.

FRANKLIN: And I tried to go get an expungement, which took 45 days, and I lost my opportunity to work with the Census Bureau.

The job application to be a U.S. census taker says that most juvenile offenses do not need to be disclosed. So how, we wondered, does that square with Franklin’s situation?

We tried to find out, but the Census Bureau declined comment for this story. That’s how we found out something else. The Census Bureau wouldn’t comment because of an on-going class action suit. Sammuel Miller, an attorney with Outten & Golden in Manhattan, is the lead attorney in the case.

MILLER: So the heart of this lawsuit is a challenge to Census denying people jobs for the 2010 counting process based on arrests where they never were convicted and on old and very minor arrests, even where convictions did occur.

The reality of how the Census Bureau reviews peoples’ criminal backgrounds, Miller says

MILLER: is that they will look at juvenile offenses, they will look at arrests even where people have never been prosecuted or convicted, and that they will exclude people from consideration based on those kinds of factors.

He says the lawsuit challenges that process as racially discriminatory based on the well documented disparities in arrest rates of African-Americans and Latinos.

MILLER: Census’s policy of virtually excluding people based on arrests has the result of importing those racial disparities from the criminal justice system into the hiring process.

None of this comes as a great surprise to Kate Winner, the Vista Americorps attorney at the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago.

WINNER: People think that their juvenile record all of a sudden becomes off-limits, and it goes into a locked safe somewhere. That is not the case. That is not the case at all.

Winner is at an expungement fair, offering free legal advice on how to clear, expunge, juvenile records. Here in Illinois, juvenile records - and that includes both arrests and the outcomes of any court cases - these records are considered confidential.

WINNER: They’re supposed to be confidential, but you know, what does that really mean? Ya know, nothin’.

here are legal exceptions to the supposed confidentiality of a juvenile record in Illinois. For instance sheriff’s offices, police departments, the Department of Corrections and fire departments can all consider juvenile history when hiring.

And the military also considers juvenile records. They look at each case on an individual basis.

IRVING: A lotta times it’s the military recruiter who has such an investment in trying to get that individual into the military, that they will bring it to their attention.

That’s Jim Irving, an attorney at DLA Piper in Chicago. For private sector jobs, he says, at least in theory, employers shouldn’t be able to see juvenile records. But Irving and three other sources have told WBEZ, that they believe, through private background check companies, it sometimes happens anyway.

IRVING: But a lotta private sector employers, with the way the labor market is, why do they have to tell them? I mean if there are 100 applicants for the job, & 2, 5, 10 of them have arrest records that they don’t know about? You’re just not gonna call ‘em back.

And that means, Irving thinks, that old arrest records, possibly long forgotten, can mean not getting a job.

IRVING: The scarlet letter. This time it’s “A” for arrest. And they don’t even see it pinned to their chest and it’s a barrier to them achieving what they want to in life. And it’s a drain on the system as well. Because there are a lotta great youths out there -- there are a lotta great young adults out there -- that just aren’t getting a full chance - and they don’t know why.

Which is the reason lots of people who deal with kids - police officers, judges, probation officers, and any number of other professionals routinely advise young people to get their juvenile records expunged, blocked out, as soon as they possibly can. The earliest by the way, is at age 17.

But it can be a lengthy, complicated and somewhat expensive process.

Daunting enough, that most people aren’t doing it.

Over 25,000 kids are arrested in Cook County each year. Twenty-five thousand. And many of those are eligible for expungement. But the number of people in the county who’ve actually managed to get their juvenile records expunged?

Here’s what WBEZ has learned: 58 juvenile record expungements in 2008 and 95 in 2009.

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