Foot traffic from within the Juvenile Center and proximity to its partners fueled a momentum that resulted in more people visiting the Juvenile Expungement Help Desk. That momentum was abruptly interrupted on March 17, 2020.

Jason (whose name has been changed for this article) is a new client at the Juvenile Expungement Help Desk. He is 32 years old, but when he was 15, Jason was arrested in Chicago for battery and retail theft. The prosecutor filed charges against him in juvenile court, and Jason was found guilty and sentenced to one year of probation. He followed all the rules of his probation, and after a year, the case was closed. That juvenile case was Jason’s only involvement with the criminal legal system, yet he was denied a job with the Chicago Transit Authority because the arrest is still on his record. Like many other juveniles who cycle through the legal system, Jason reasonably thought he was out when his juvenile case was over. However, having a juvenile record means he is not really out until the record gets expunged, and doing so means Jason must be pulled back into the legal system he thought was long behind him.

Juvenile Justice in Cook County

The medieval saying that all roads lead to Rome is the best way to understand how the juvenile legal system is organized in Cook County in Illinois. The Circuit Court of Cook County is the second largest unified court system in the United States. Its jurisdiction covers the city of Chicago and 126 surrounding suburbs. The Juvenile Justice and Child Protection Department accommodates an approximate caseload of 150,000 juvenile cases each year. Juvenile Caseload Statistics by County.

Juvenile justice is administered in the various district courts throughout Cook County, but the vast majority of juvenile delinquency cases filter through one building located at 1100 South Hamilton on Chicago’s west side. For people like Jason who want to expunge a juvenile record, 1100 South Hamilton is Rome.

An Unlikely Collaboration

The building at 1100 South Hamilton, also known as the Juvenile Center, is a legal ecosystem unto itself. In addition to courtrooms and the Office of the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County, the Juvenile Center houses a temporary detention center, the Juvenile Probation Department, public defender’s offices, the Office of the Public Guardian, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, and the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice. A youth’s involvement with any of these entities depends on a number of factors, but the primary objective of the Juvenile Justice Division is the stated goal of “promoting a system of treatment . . . that responds to the issues of delinquent behavior . . . [and] is designed to protect the community, impose accountability, and equip minors with competencies to live responsibly and productively.” Juvenile Justice Division, State of Illinois Circuit Court of Cook County website.

For anyone who navigates the criminal legal system, the experience has more twists and turns than a Rube Goldberg machine. For a juvenile who is exposed to the system, the outcome can feel less like the stated goal of treatment and more like punishment, especially after the juvenile’s case is over. Even though Illinois law says that a juvenile record is not meant to cause any civil penalties, the state has 982 permanent punishment laws and policies that routinely prevent people with criminal and juvenile records from getting licensed or finding a job. Katie Buitrago & Sandra Escobar-Schulz, Never Fully Free: The Scale and Impact of Permanent Punishments on People with Criminal Records in Illinois (Social IMPACT Research Center, Heartland Alliance Research & Policy Division, 2020).

Recognizing that the goal of equipping youth who have been system-involved with the ability to live responsibly and to be productive must include a way to clear their juvenile record, entities within the juvenile legal ecosystem formed an unlikely partnership with legal aid organizations to create the Juvenile Expungement Help Desk in 2009.

One-Stop Shop

When Jason was 15, the Juvenile Expungement Help Desk did not exist. If it had, his probation officer would have directed him to the help desk for information on how to expunge his case after his last court date. This is how things operated before the shutdown of public spaces that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic. The help desk was a one-stop shop, with the bulk of its clients coming from immediate referrals by other agencies in the Juvenile Center. Age is an important factor in terms of how people become aware of juvenile expungement. For minors who were required to come to the Juvenile Center anyway, expungement was proximal to their court case both in time and in physical location. Adults, no matter how old, seeking to expunge juvenile records could only do so at the Juvenile Center and were either self-referred walk-ins or were sent to the help desk by the clerk’s office.

Functionally, the help desk was designed to operate symbiotically with the other agencies within the juvenile legal ecosystem. These nontraditional relationships made it possible to provide a complete service that lasted 25–40 minutes from client intake to filing an expungement petition with the clerk. If Jason had decided to expunge his record before the pandemic, he would have walked into the help desk office and consulted with a law student intern or attorney, completed some paperwork, then been sent upstairs to pick up his record of arrests and prosecutions (RAP) sheet from the juvenile probation department. A RAP sheet is a crucial part of the process. Without it, help desk staff could not do the required case research to make eligibility determinations nor properly prepare a petition to ensure all cases are expunged. Using the information on the RAP sheet, help desk staff would have prepared a petition on the spot and given it to Jason to file with the clerk (conveniently located across the hall) to get a court date. If the petition was approved by the judge, Jason’s record would have been considered expunged 45 days later. The idea for creating a one-stop shop model for the help desk was to eliminate the burden of requiring someone to return to the Juvenile Center multiple times. The effect was to make juvenile expungement the final step in someone’s journey through the system.

General Administrative Order No: 2020-01

Since its inception, the Juvenile Expungement Help Desk has made a significant impact in breaking down barriers to employment and other opportunities because of its location inside the Juvenile Center. Expungements increased from around 368 in 2008 to almost 1500 by 2016. Law changes that expanded eligibility and eliminated the cost of expunging a juvenile record led to the help desk assisting with nearly 4,000 expungement cases in 2019. Foot traffic from within the Juvenile Center and proximity to its partners fueled a momentum that resulted in more people visiting the help desk for assistance with expunging their juvenile record. That momentum was abruptly interrupted on March 17, 2020.

Chief Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County Timothy Evans issued General Administrative Order No: 2020-01 in mid-March, 2020. The order closed the courts to all nonemergency matters, and pending cases were continued for 30 days. Expungement of a juvenile record is not an emergency matter. Courthouses were closed to the public and all court-adjacent activities were put on hold. Like so many other cases, those filed through the help desk were put in limbo, and work with existing clients was paused. Once it was clear that the COVID-19 crisis would continue, courtrooms remained closed and case continuances were extended.

Resuming the Work

In June 2020, the courts reopened virtually, remote hearings resumed for the cases that had been continued, and new petitions could be filed through email. However, the Juvenile Center remained closed to the public, and all client-facing service providers were forced to shift operations to a remote format. With much of the success of the Juvenile Expungement Help Desk being attributable to its physical location within the Juvenile Center, the shift to remote operations was problematic.

All around the world, COVID-19 has exposed many challenges with workplace processes, especially for an agency whose business model relies on operating a physical location in the place where it delivers its service. The first hurdle to overcome for help desk staff was figuring out how to deal with a large backlog of expungement cases. At the time, most expungements filed through the help desk were pro se and divided between the two legal aid organizations that run it. Tracking of help desk clients was not shared between the organizations, and case management processes were also different. This disjunction led to some cases falling through the cracks, with petitions either not being scheduled a hearing date or cases being heard without notice to the petitioner. Pro se petitioners often had no way of knowing whether or not their expungements were granted. Both organizations worked closely with the court to clear the backlog, but there is no way to know the outcome of every pro se petition that was scheduled to be heard during that period.

The second obstacle faced by staff at the Juvenile Expungement Help Desk was determining the best way to help clients remotely while delivering the same level of service suited to a one-stop shop model. Before the pandemic, the use of technology at the help desk was limited to applications needed to do case research, perform case management activities, and draft court documents. Client interaction was face-to-face, and help desk staff were able to accomplish a lot while the client was there. The setup was conducive to people being self-represented because the actual legwork of getting the RAP sheet and filing the petition was done by the petitioner. With people being unable to get their juvenile RAP sheet or file their petition in person, the need to fully represent clients became apparent. Thus, the Juvenile Expungement Help Desk staff decided to change its service model to full representation early on.

Like so many other legal assistance programs, the help desk has transitioned to a 100 percent remote format, making use of various types of tech tools to replicate the same or provide a better quality of service for people seeking to expunge their juvenile record. Returning to Jason’s case, a law student intern or attorney volunteer consulted with him and emailed the paperwork needed to start his expungement case. The documents have been adapted to make it easy for Jason to complete the forms on his phone or computer, including adding his electronic signature. Once Jason returns the completed forms, help desk staff will get his RAP sheet and prepare the petition. Jason will then sign the petition online, and help desk staff will email it to the clerk to get his court date. Where the entire process from intake to filing took an average of 35 minutes before COVID, it now takes at least a week, depending on the case. The trade-off is that Jason will not have to leave the comfort of his home to remove the barriers he faces by having a juvenile record.

A Pandemic of Inadequate Access to Justice

There has been a drop in the number of young clients helped by the Juvenile Expungement Help Desk since March 2020. As noted above, age was an important factor in how someone became aware of the help desk pre-pandemic, and system-involved youth would have been directed to the help desk by another agency within the Juvenile Center. These children are not inclined to seek help with expungement on their own because they haven’t been faced with a barrier yet, whereas adults like Jason will call the help desk because their juvenile records are standing in their way.

Jason may not be concerned with the macro-level causes of why he needs help in the first place. He just wants to get a job. Structural racism pervades the criminal and juvenile legal systems and leads to permanent punishments that greenlight discrimination against people with criminal records. These laws and policies mostly affect people of color and reinforce cycles of poverty in their communities. A number of civil legal issues can be linked to a youth’s involvement with the juvenile legal system, and the existence of these problems on a mass scale feeds into a larger pandemic of inadequate access to justice.

COVID-19 has undoubtedly widened the justice gap, and there is no way to know yet to what extent. Court-based help desks were designed to increase people’s access to a confusing court system if they could not afford an attorney and had to go it alone in resolving their legal problems. As of 2017, just 14 percent of civil legal issues faced by low-income people in the United States received adequate assistance. Legal Services Corporation, The Justice Gap: Measuring the Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-income Americans (2017). With the juvenile courts and agencies in the Juvenile Center shifting to remote, the legal ecosystem has changed. Court-adjacent services that have relied on being physically present in courthouses have had to adapt their processes to a new virtual reality while trying to keep as many people as possible from falling into the justice gap.

By. Natanya M. Pope, who is a staff attorney in the Volunteer Services Unit at Legal Aid Chicago and manages the Juvenile Expungement Help Desk as part of the Criminal Records Relief project in Chicago, Illinois.