Why is it so hard to expunge juvenile records in Cook County?

File: Chicago police officer arresting a juvenile.
File: Chicago police officer arresting a juvenile. Carlos Javier Ortiz/WBEZ
File: Chicago police officer arresting a juvenile.
File: Chicago police officer arresting a juvenile. Carlos Javier Ortiz/WBEZ

Why is it so hard to expunge juvenile records in Cook County?

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File: Chicago police officer arresting a juvenile. (Carlos Javier Ortiz/WBEZ)

Thousands of kids get arrested each year at school in Chicago, and that might not be news to you. 

But what might be surprising are what can be long-term consequences of juvenile arrests, even for comparatively minor offenses. 

And how hard it can be for a young person to get out from under an early and damaging mistake.

We talked with one young woman about just such a story.

We’re calling her Laura to protect her privacy.  Laura’s  mom is a respiratory therapist, and a single parent. After she immigrated to this country she attended nursing school, but wasn’t able to finish.  When Laura was 12,  she’d help her mom study and she remembers that the material was “really rigorous, like really tough.”

At the same time it was super interesting to her. Laura says she knew even then, that her profession would involve working with people.  And by the time she was 21, she’d passed her board exams to become a registered nurse.  Now she was just waiting for that envelope.

“So we got the letter and we were just so excited. It was like. Okay. We got the license! We got the license!” she recalls. 

Turns out, it wasn’t a license. It was a letter. From the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation.

“So I was reading the letter and basically it said that I was prohibited, like it was in bold – prohibited from practice. And I’m like, whaaat?”

The letter gave a date when Laura was in elementary school.  A date when she’d been charged with battery and bodily harm. Laura’s thinking, nooo. But then she had a dim recollection from way back in 8th grade.

“And basically we were fighting, police were around the corner,” she says. “They came and picked us up. They didn’t even put us in handcuffs, they just put us in the car, took us to the police station and had us cool off in different rooms. And we got our fingerprints done.”                                                                                                                            

Laura had what’s called an informal “station adjustment,” informal because there was no admission of guilt. The incident is resolved right there. It isn’t referred to the state’s attorney’s office, the young person doesn’t even go to court.

But what Laura didn’t understand at the time, and her mother apparently didn’t understand, is that when she left that station, Laura had an arrest record.

Eugene Roy, commander of youth investigations for the Chicago Police Department, isn’t surprised: “Absolutely.  If somebody is arrested - there is an arrest record.”

He says if the child is older than 10 years of age and the offense is either a Class A or Class B misdemeanor, that child is photographed and fingerprinted.

To get that license to become a registered nurse Laura had to first have fingerprints taken for a criminal background check. That’s where things got sticky. The FBI notified the licensing board in Illinois of Laura’s early arrest, something Laura says she “just never expected to happen.”

Laura was arrested in ‘04. By 2010 the law in Illinois had changed. Since then juvenile records are no longer sent from the state police to the FBI, which is the agency that dispenses information for criminal background checks.

However.  Here’s the problem:  About ten years earlier a different state law permitted local police departments to send juvenile arrest data to the Illinois State Police—and they routinely forwarded it to the FBI.

In that decade, well over 170, 000 young people, 17 and under, were arrested in Cook County at least one time. It’s anybody’s guess how many of those records were forwarded to the Illinois State Police and ultimately the FBI.

Just like Laura, all those young people have been exposed to the possibility that a long-ago record could suddenly pop up in their lives. In a very negative way.

Mariame Kaba is the head of Project NIA, a grassroots group that works to reduce youth incarceration.  “I mean this to me is infuriating. And it’s wrong. And it’s unfair,” she says.

Kaba’s a friend of Laura’s, and is the person Laura called when she first got that letter and panicked. Together, they gathered certified court documents and statements to answer the licensing agency’s questions about the circumstances of Laura’s arrest.

They made their case and today Laura is working as a nurse at a hospital right here in Chicago.

Just to be sure this doesn’t happen again, they also expunged— or cleared — Laura’s record.

“I don’t know many 20 year olds or 21 year olds who are going to be able to navigate this process on their own. The process is very difficult,” Kaba says.

The first step is to retrieve the arrest history report from the agency that made the arrest in the first place, though she adds:  “But the police. Like, that’s like a big entity. And many young people are fearful of the police.”

And retrieving the arrest report is just the beginning.

Then you have to figure out the right court forms to fill out and file a petition to expunge.

Then get the forms to the Clerk of the Court’s office.

Then wait. And maybe have a hearing.

Then if expungement is granted, pay $124 for every arrest. If you do it all correctly, the whole process can take two to three months. 

It upsets Kaba that people have to go through this.

“This tells you something about what we mean when we talk about the “school to prison pipeline,” she says. “The fact that schools are calling the police on young people, arresting them directly from school. Those young people go to the precinct. The precinct says: ‘It’s not a big deal.’ And that is the record that is following her now? What are we doing? We’re actually making it much harder for those young people to be productive citizens later on.”

So what’s the solution?

Kaba says, “The short version is, first and foremost, you should be able to expunge your record immediately. Okay, so you get arrested and nothing happens after that – you have a mere arrest? You should be able to expunge at any point in your juvenile career.”

The way the law is now, even for an arrest with no conviction, a kid has to wait until 17 to try to clear a record.

If it’s a more serious arrest where a judge declares a kid “delinquent” a young person usually has to wait until turning 21, or beyond, before a record can be expunged.

Here’s an interesting statistic: About 40 percent of all youth arrested in Cook County never get sent to court. The kid was never charged, never stood before a judge –Kaba wants automatic expungement of those kind of arrests as soon as young people turn 18.

“We’re willing to accept that if you had a conviction then you’d have to go through the regular process of doing an expungement. Fine. But for a mere arrest? Get rid of that.”

Meanwhile, you’d think there’d be an awful lot of people lined up to expunge their juvenile records.

But, as it turns out, the juvenile expungement numbers around here are grim.

In 2011, almost 17,000 juveniles got arrested in Cook County. Just about enough to fill the Allstate arena in Rosemont. And because some kids get arrested multiple times, the number of arrests was more like 30,000.

So!  Thirty thousand juvenile arrests.  Guess how many juvenile expungements ? Wrong. Guess again. No. The actual number?  67.

2012 wasn’t much better: Over 25,000 juvenile arrests in Cook County . The number of juvenile expungements last year? 70.

Why so few?

Cost is part of it. And the hassle of gathering records. But also, people who follow this tell us, the process is so complicated, so daunting — people start, but never make it to the finish line.

Kaba’s group and others drafted legislation about a year ago to make it easier for a young person to expunge his record if he’s been arrested, but hasn’t been convicted. 

The chief opponent was the office of Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez. The bill died in a Senate committee last spring.

WBEZ wanted to ask the State’s Attorney’s office about their views on juvenile expungement. But a spokesman declined, saying that if a specific expungement proposal makes its way through the legislature in the future, they’d reconsider talking with us.

Cook County Juvenile Arrests and Expungements

Sources: Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority and Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County. See disclaimer below

Sources:  Office of the State Appellate Defender and Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County*

Broken down by year, this chart shows the number of juvenile arrests in Cook County, the number of expungements (see definition here) requested for juvenile records and the number of expungements granted.

Note 1: Expungements are recorded in the year that they are granted, not the year of the offense.
Note 2: As of Jan 1, 2010, 17 year olds in Illinois arrested for misdemeanor offenses are considered juveniles, not adults
Note 3: For an explanation of which juvenile records are eligible for expungement, see website of the Office of the State Appellate Defender.

*General Data Dissemination Disclaimer by Clerk of Circuit Court: The information provided is a custom produced summary of the electronic court record that is maintained by the Clerk of the Circuit Court for internal and administrative purposes, from the paper documents with an understanding that the information is true and correct in as far as all aspects of the documents physically filed with the Clerk of the Circuit Court. The official court records are held and maintained in the hard copy paper files in the courthouse or other official Clerk’s repositories.  The Clerk diligently strives to maintain accurate, complete and timely data in its electronic databases but shall not be liable for any consequential, exemplary, incidental or special damages arising from or in connection with data or information produced in response to the request for custom programming. However, because of the many variables involved in producing customized electronic data reports, users should not cite the provided information as an official or authoritative source and are advised to independently verify all information.   All Users are advised to independently verify any information or data obtained with official court information reposing in the court files (i.e., pleadings, orders, half sheets, file jackets and the contents thereof, etc.).

* CORRECTION:  In a report on Feb. 4, 2013 WBEZ cited juvenile expungement numbers lower than were accurate. The numbers we used showed expungments only of juvenile cases that had gone to court, although WBEZ had requested the TOTAL number of  juvenile records expunged. The Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County has since corrected the earlier data they sent us. Below is an updated list of the number of  juvenile expungements granted in Cook County in recent years:

2006    243

2007    376

2008    363

2009    499

2010    528

2011    459

2012    549

2013    660