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It was a little past 7 o’clock on a late summer morning in Fremont, California, and 18-year-old D was already running late. At six foot one with black hair and designer glasses, he looks like an Indian version of Clark Kent. It was an important occasion for D, which by the way isn’t really his name. He asked not to be identified, since that would have defeated the entire purpose of what he was trying to do that day.
D was applying to get his juvenile record sealed. And depending on what happened at his hearing that afternoon, he had the chance to walk away from court without having to explain his past to future employers, schools, or landlords.
“I’m not sure how it’s going to go,” D said. “And I’m really nervous, but I’m kind of excited because I think it should go well. I hope it looks like all the other court dates except I don’t have to come in again. I just hope I go in and everything is done.”
When D was 16 years old, he was convicted of a minor drug offense. Although in some states your juvenile record is automatically sealed when you turn a certain age, others like California — D’s home state — make you apply for it. And there are a lot of steps you have to take.
“The defendant is expected to provide documentation that can be very frustrating to obtain,” said Jackie-Lynn Adams, a private attorney who specializes in record sealing and says the process can be trying for young people. It varies, county by county. For example, in Alameda County, where D is having his hearing, you have to fill out some forms and pay a $150 fee. In other places, like Orange County, you’re required to show more evidence of change.
“[In Orange County] you must provide proof of employment,” Adams said. “You must provide proof that you graduated high school. You have to include a lot of different biographical data. You have to provide a lot more information and a lot more proof that you’ve actually taken steps since your criminal conviction to become a better citizen. “
But it’s not just geography that can make it harder to clear your criminal record — it’s age. And surprisingly, minors are at a disadvantage. Adams says the procedure for clearing juvenile records is actually more complex than the one adults go through.
“I really don’t know what intent the legislature had when they created these two very different processes,” she said. “It doesn’t really seem to really make any logical sense to make it so much harder for someone to seal a juvenile criminal past than an adult criminal past. The avenue should be much clearer and much simpler.”
So how do you navigate the record clearing process? Some people shell out thousands of dollars to hire a lawyer like Adams, but that wasn’t an option for D, who already had to borrow money from his family for the $150 fee. Instead, he filled out the application himself and planned to represent himself at his hearing. He was hopeful he would succeed.
“It’d just be one less thing to worry about,” he said. “Like I’m just a normal person. I’m not the marked man no more.”
Marked in more ways than one.
“[Having a juvenile record] can impact housing,” said Judge Trina Thompson, who presides over the Alameda County Juvenile Courts. “It can impact your eligibility for financial aid if you’re in college. If you’re a witness to something and you’re called to testify about what you observed or heard, your juvenile record could impact that testimony and be used to discredit you.”
And while the $150 fee is a bit expensive for many young people, Thompson said it’s a small price to pay in the long run given all the ways having a record can impact your life.
“I often say that if young people can figure out a way to spend $150 on a pair of tennis shoes, maybe spending $150 investing in your own life is far more important,” she said.
But according to attorney Jackie-Lynn Adams, the price of sealing your juvenile record goes beyond the filing fee. There are a lot of unspoken requirements that can cost clients like D. For example, being able to take time off work to make your court dates or knowing how to make a good first impression.
“People that have certain means, they can hire an attorney who can tell them exactly how to dress, how to cover up, what to do, what to say,” she said. “People that don’t have the means unfortunately go in there blind and they do their best but oftentimes it’s not what the judge is looking for.”
On the morning of D’s hearing, D and his dad arrived at the courthouse in a hurry. But when they got to security, one of the guards stopped D and told him he needed to change his clothes; the front of his t-shirt had a giant picture of a hand flipping the middle finger. D seemed surprised. He said he wasn’t even thinking about it when he got dressed that morning.
When they returned and finally entered the courthouse hallway, they found a chaotic scene. People were everywhere, waiting on benches and talking over each other; lawyers burst in and out of doors; the hallway was filled with families with screaming babies. It took D a few more minutes to find the right room. When he got there, he was told by one of the court employees that he was too late. His hearing was already over. His application had been denied.
At first, D didn’t say anything. He avoided his dad’s gaze. It wasn’t until he went upstairs to try to figure out what his next steps would be that he started to let his frustration show. He approached an administrator who was sitting behind a glass window.
“I was just wondering do I have to do the steps all over again?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“I have to pay 150 all over again?”
“And pay the 150 all over again.”
“Wait, how come? Because that’s not really fair though, because when I got off probation, when I went court, the dude said you could do it right away…”
The woman came out of her glass booth to talk to D in the waiting room. She said she didn’t know exactly why his record was denied. He wasn’t in court to find out himself, which of course could have been the reason his case was thrown out. The woman told D he needed to wait a little longer, maybe a year or two, before he tried again. But leaving the courthouse, D said he wasn’t so sure he wanted to go through another round of paperwork and fees.
“I don’t see the point of waiting so long,” he said.”I’ll probably forget and won’t even do it at that point. I’d just be like, that was when I was a kid, what do you have against me?”
In Alameda County, D’s case represents the small percentage of cases that are denied. So far this year, about 68 out of the 77 applicants had their records sealed…that’s 88 percent of requests granted. Last year, the acceptance rate was 92 percent. So, for D and others who had their applications denied, the question becomes, where exactly did they go wrong? And, how long will those mistakes follow them?