Cook County legislators recently held a press conference to recognize the passage of the Youth Opportunity and Fairness Act, which aims to increase the protections surrounding sealed juvenile records.

Photo: WBEZ/Bill Healy

The Youth Opportunity and Fairness Act is the result of the signing of HB 3817 into law, which will take effect on Jan. 1, 2018. According to its synopsis, HB 3817 provides more than eight clearly defined protections for juvenile records including:

  • Juvenile records are to be sealed and never disclosed to the general public regardless if expungement has occurred or not; individuals who willfully violate The Youth Opportunity and Fairness Act by divulging juvenile records will face a fine of $1,000
  • Individuals now no longer need to be 21 years old to be eligible to petition for an expungement
  • Adjudications in connection to juvenile records will not disqualify an individual from holding public office, receiving a license through public authority, or disqualify any civil service application or appointmentCook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle thanked legislators, advocates, among others responsible for bringing the bill to pass for their hard work and dedication. She called the previous pathway toward juvenile record expungement as “complicated, costly, and dysfunctional.”

“This measure is an important step for removing barriers from the past for our most vulnerable young people as they try to build productive lives,” said Preckwinkle. “Stigmatizing young people for life makes no sense; it jeopardizes our public safety by keeping them away from legitimate sources of income.”

Half of the counties in Illinois did not execute the expungement of any juveniles in the last decade, according to a news release published by Cook County. The release reports too that only 0.29 percent or less than three in 1,000 juvenile records were expunged over the same time period.

“Cook County government spends a massive amount of money on our criminal justice system, particularly on our jail and our juvenile detention center,” said Preckwinkle. “Our approach has been to reform and advocate for policies and practices that right size the juvenile and criminal justice systems as well as ensure that those communities have been involved in a system that may lead to more productive lives.”

State Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook (Dist. – 57), the primary sponsor of the Youth Opportunity and Fairness Act in the state house, said to the best of her knowledge the number of juveniles occupying detention centers who are sent to adult court have “decreased dramatically.”

“It isn’t often in the legislature that you get a chance to see in a very concrete way the outcome of the legislation that you work on,” said Nekritz. “In this instance, those outcomes have been current and very quick. I think with this Act, youth will have greater opportunity for jobs, education, and employment in a very concrete way.”

State Rep. Justin Slaughter (Dist.- 27th) said he believes HB 3817 was the “most special” of a series of bills recently signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner because he believes one of the greatest issues facing youth and young adults within Illinois is access to opportunities.

“This bill recognizes the importance of second chances and it helps our youth access necessities to be productive citizens in our community and our state; necessities like employment, housing, and education,” said Slaughter. “Our ability to reach a consensus on criminal justice issues has been quite interesting and should send a clear message that we won’t stop, we won’t quit advocating for policies that are going to continue to reform our system both for juveniles and adults.”

But why has there been such a delay on passing legislation to make strides in juvenile justice reform? Carolyn Frazier, a staff attorney at the Northwestern University’s Bluhm Legal Clinic’s Children and Family Justice Center, who has worked in the arena of juvenile justice for 15 years, explained that educating individuals on the issues through advocacy was a necessary step for the legislation to not only be introduced but passed. She said many had the misconception that juvenile records are confidential and that they have no impact on an individual’s life once he or she turns 18.

“It took a while for people on the ground, mainly kids who don’t have much of a voice, to connect with adults to say, ‘wait a minute, this is what’s happening to me’ and then for those to get together and say this is a problem and then convincing people that this is an important enough problem that we need to study to get that data because without that data it’s just anecdotes,” said Frazier.

Frazier credited the Illinois’ legislature efforts in 2013/2014 for passing a joint resolution to commission the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission to study juvenile record expungement. To read the full report visit: http://ijjc.illinois.gov/publications/burdened-life-myth-juvenile-record-confidentiality-and-expungement-illinois.

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