CHICAGO — Thousands of teens are arrested each year, but relatively few take advantage of a little-known legal process that can help them transition into adulthood after juvenile court.
According to students at the Mikva Challenge Juvenile Justice Council, many teens with juvenile records don't know that those offenses often can be expunged — made legally "off-limits" — to employers, schools, potential landlords and other nongovernmental agencies.
Chris Rudd, director of juvenile justice at Mikva, put it simply: A juvenile record "messes people up."
But of the roughly 25,000 youths arrested in 2012, only 70 applied to have their records expunged. And for the last seven years, only a small fraction of those eligible for expungement have applied.
According to Lali Avila, an 18-year-old senior at John Hancock High School, spreading the word about expungement of juvenile records is personal.
Avila is on her way to graduating, with plans to major in political science, but she has friends who haven't made similar decisions and are suffering the consequences of a criminal record.
"It motivates me knowing that this could help my friends get a better job," she said. "It makes me happy knowing they're going to receive help."
Rudd said data show that the odds of successful expungement are nearly assured once a teen applies. The process just involves jumping through a few bureaucratic hoops.
"If you give [teens] a hurdle to jump over, sometimes they won't do it," he said. "We’re trying to eliminate as many hurdles as possible."
During her research, Avila said the biggest shock came when she realized how many teens with records for nonviolent crimes aren't aware of the expungement process.
As of Jan. 1, the age requirement for expungement eligibility was raised from 17 to 18. Records that can be expunged include dismissals, sentences of supervision, juvenile convictions for misdemeanors and juvenile arrests in which there were no charges.
Since the site's launch Jan. 7, Rudd said Mikva has received calls from California and Pennsylvania about how to replicate Expunge.io in their own states. The site has had more than 1,000 visits, and six people have since contacted a lawyer about their expungement options, Rudd said.
Expungement applications have been approved by the Cook County Clerk of the Court's office about 99 percent of the time since 2006, according to data from WBEZ.
Avila said she's glad for the chance to help other teens, especially through technology as ubiquitous to teens as the smartphone. But for her, the development of Expunge.io is also a personal achievement.
"I think this is a great start to try to make a difference — to show that I care about people and big issues in the world," she said. "Stuff like this is just the beginning of what I want to do with my life."