Justice in Motion — Criminal history can be a lifetime albatross

During my monthly visits to talk to the youth at the Juvenile Detention Center in Junction City, I ask them if they know what happens to their criminal record once they become 18. Television does a serious disservice with its allusions that juvenile criminal records are sealed once a youth becomes an adult. Thankfully, the number of youth raising their hands that this is an accurate statement is less each visit. Getting this point across is all the more important since some youth are not there because of criminal activity; rather, they are there due to other situations, e.g., truancy, foster care, youth at risk, etc.

Youth often don’t think about future consequences in the first instance. Not dissimilar to the potential brain damage from substance abuse, one’s criminal history can permanently alter a youth’s future, including a significant impairment to one’s ability to find employment, housing, etc. If the youth is a person of color, the statistics are bleaker. Without secure employment or housing, the likelihood of continuing along a path of crime increases exponentially.

Some of my clients have criminal histories from long ago and they routinely report these convictions remain a significant barrier to their ability to pull themselves out of poverty. It is a cycle that is very difficult to break once in it. Options will be limited for a young adult entering the adult world in this economy with a criminal record.

Depending on a variety of factors, one may be able to clean up some or all of one’s criminal history. This is no small effort. The steps will vary depending on whether your criminal record occurred as a youth or adult, consists of a misdemeanor or felony, etc. Of course, some convictions cannot be vacated, e.g., certain felonies, such as violent offenses, crimes against persons, etc.

In the age of the Internet, one’s criminal history, even if legally vacated, may live in perpetuity on the World Wide Web. Additionally, while you may successfully vacate your criminal record, read carefully when filling out a subsequent application. For instance, you may legally be able to state you do not have a conviction, but what about the underlying arrest?

To figure out if you have the option to clean up your criminal history, including vacating convictions, sealing juvenile records, correcting errors and deleting non-conviction records (arrests, dropped charges, etc.), you need to know what your criminal history is. The first step is to pull together the following information:

1) Where your criminal history information has been recorded—each and every jurisdiction;

2) All date(s) of conviction, acquittal, certificate of discharge, etc.;

3) Verification and all date(s) of sentence requirements being completed, including time served, probation, financial legal obligations, etc.;

4) The language of the law allegedly violated (as it existed at the time of the crime) and its codification, e.g., RCW 9.41.040 Unlawful Possession of Firearms (2005).

Once you have that information, we maintain a variety of resources about what you may be able to do with your criminal records at www.washingtonlawhelp.org.

To find out if you are eligible for Northwest Justice Project services:

For cases including youth (Individualized Education Program and school discipline issues), debt collection cases and tenant evictions, please call for a local intake appointment Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. at (360) 533-2282 or toll free (866) 402-5293. No walk-ins, please.

For all other legal issues, please call our toll-free intake and referral hotline commonly known as “CLEAR” (Coordinated Legal Education Advice and Referral) at 1-888-201-1014, Mondays through Fridays 9:10 a.m. to 12:25 p.m. If you are a senior, 60 and over, please call 1-888-387-7111; you may be eligible regardless of income. Language interpreters are available. You can also complete an application for services at http://nwjustice.org/get-legal-help.

Sarah Glorian is the senior attorney for the Aberdeen office of the Northwest Justice Project, a private, non-profit legal aid organization providing free representation to low-income residents in Grays Harbor and Pacific counties.