They sat in a classroom, brainstorming the solution to an issue that affected so many, but which so few outside of that classroom knew about.
In Cook County, Illinois, thousands of people under the age of 18 are arrested each year. Many of them go on to pursue careers or higher education, unaware that their past mistakes could hinder their future aspirations. For those who are aware, some are intimidated by the process that allows them to request that those arrest records be sealed or destroyed. Called “expungment,” the legal action governs how juvenile criminal records are handled.
A 2013 WBEZ radio report diagramed the number of juvenile arrests that had gone to court in Cook County, juxtaposed to the number of expungements requested between 2006 and 2012. During that time, there were 206,056 juvenile arrests. Just 502 (.24%) people requested expungement. All but three requests were granted.
In response to such low numbers of people requesting expungement, 25 high school students in Chicago envisioned an entity that would help make the process easier and more accessible for those seeking a fresh start later in life.
Richard Cozzola is the director of Children and Families Practice Group. He supervises some the attorneys who have worked with Expunge.io.
Cozzola believes that the primary reasons people don’t often pursue expungement is because they may be discouraged by the number of steps required and that there is a lack of information available to those who would otherwise seek it.
“It can be challenging figuring out how to get a lawyer,” Cozzola said.
“Sometimes people think their record is confidential, or that a juvenile offense is inconsequential,” he said. “[But] to acquire your criminal record, file a petition, come back for your hearing. It’s too much for people to have to make three to six stops at the station.”
While expungement does not keep the courts or the Department of Corrections from accessing a juvenile record, it can remove future barriers, even those to getting a student loan. Studies by the Center for Economic and Policy Research have shown that having a history of incarceration reduces a worker’s chance of being hired by 15-30%.
It was because of this that Korynna Lopez and the other students saw the need for a program like Expunge.io.
Lopez, 21, is now a student at DePaul University in Chicago. She says many of her then-fellow students had relatives with misdemeanors or a record of a minor crime themselves. She adds that they sought to come up with something that would address an issue that was both real and damaging to so many of them.
Still, she didn’t imagine their idea would attract national attention, more or less even become an app.
“When we started it didn’t seem that real. We just thought this is info you need,” Lopez said. “I’m surprised we’re here now. It’s surreal”
At the time this article was written, the app had 10,595 users. It sees an average of 30-50 users each day according to Daniel X. O’Neil, executive director of the Smart Chicago Collaborative.
According to Rudd, Mikva has received calls from California, Louisiana, Maryland, and Pennsylvania about how to replicate Expunge.io in their own states.
Speaking at the “Youth, Social Change, and the Media” session at the Online News Association (ONA) Conference in Chicago on Thursday, Rudd said he is excited about how far Expunge.io has come, but reiterates that their goal is still to change the lives of individuals and their families moving forward. He says that he came to the ONA Conference to help inform more people about the disengagement with expungement.
“Hopefully we’ll have more policy change,” he said. “Maybe we get to a point where we have automatic expungement throughout the country, so people can have a second chance and not get penalized for life.”
For Lopez, it’s those same lives that makes Expunge.io so important.
“Who hasn’t made a mistake? We just want to help people who made a few bigger ones.”