It’s widely assumed that most crimes committed by juveniles are sealed or expunged when the person turns 18, but that’s far from the case. In most states young people have to apply to seal their record, which can involve bureaucratic hurdles, fees and court appearances. Youth Radio spoke to Rourke Stacy, who has worked for the Los Angeles County’s Public Defender’s Office for nearly 11 years, as a felony trial lawyer, and an attorney doing juvenile delinquency trial work.
Turnstyle: How informed do you think the public is about sealing records?
Rourke Stacy: I think the public is not very informed at all. One of the reasons that the public is not informed [about sealing records] is because [they aren’t] very well-informed about juvenile delinquency court. There are a lot of misconceptions. One of which is that everything goes away when you turn 18. That’s simply not true. And that’s why it’s really important that we get the word out about sealing records so that people who do have experience with juvenile delinquency court can be better informed… and that hopefully can help them in the future with employment and other opportunities.
Turnstyle: If people commit certain crimes they become ineligible for record sealing, and this can happen for crimes committed when someone is as young as the age of 14. What does that look like and what does that mean for a young person?
Stacy: Most people when they’re 14 are in the 9th grade, and as we know all 9th graders are not the most mature. It’s very sad that in the state of California, conduct when you are a 9th grader can have a life-long effect on employment or maybe even denying you into the Marines or something in the future. That to me is the most tragic part of this, looking at how young individuals in a way…they’re branded for the rest of their life because they’ve committed a non-sealable offense. It’s a stigma. It’s something that they’re always conscious of every time they look for a job and they’re filling out an application. If they get to the interview process they have to drudge up their juvenile history and explain the circumstances, or why they’re different or why it shouldn’t be held against them. So to me, it’s a systemic problem that we see, and it’s really generally been in the employment realm.
Turnstyle: What could be improved about the process?
Stacy: I think one of the biggest improvements we can make to the system are some legislative changes that enable individuals, if they’ve committed one of those offensives, [to become eligible for sealing] after a certain window of time. For instance, if they’ve gone to college; that’s something we should reward individuals for, not punish them with by letting a mark of juvenile crime be on their record.
Turnstyle: The process of sealing records seems very involved. Do you think that aspect keeps people from going forward with it? What else do you think stops people from sealing their records?
Stacy: I think what stops people from sealing their records is plain old time. Crimes that you’ve committed as a kid you might not necessarily fully realize the impact of. Most people are not going to carry around their juvenile court paper work in complete order and have everything with them. When you’re 14, when you’re 18, you may not be thinking about sealing your record. It’s just not something that may occur to you and because of that it often doesn’t get done. One of the reasons I think too is that people move around, we’re a fluid society. And individuals that may have committed crimes in LA county when they were a younger kid may have moved to a different part of the state, a different part of the country, or even to a different country and when they’re older they don’t really think, “Gosh I’ve got to go back to LA county and get my juvenile record sealed.” I think the more fluid we become as a society, the more people distance themselves from what they did as a kid, and therefore it’s not their priority to seal their record, especially if they’re one of the lucky ones where it hasn’t come into play.
Turnstyle: How necessary is it to have a lawyer? Does having money give you an advantage if you’re sealing your record?
Stacy: I do think that obviously the assistance of counsel is always helpful for a variety of reasons. One of which is that if the judge denies [sealing your record] for the wrong reason and you have the assistance of counsel they may be able to ask the court to reconsider or if they needed to, eventually file the writ to challenge it. Also you may be one of those cases where it’s borderline whether the judge should really grant sealing or not. Having counsel may help you present your case in a better way, give you tips on how to present in court, how to look in court, how to explain maybe some conduct that the judge has a question about. Again it’s all really valuable. And I do know of people who have successfully sealed their record without the assistant of counsel because they filled out the form, they got their paperwork together, and the court granted it. The more complicated your case is, the more likely you should have counsel, that’s definitely a key piece of advice. But at the end of the day it’s just important to get your record sealed. So I don’t want anyone to feel deterred from getting their record sealed because they don’t think they can afford it.