Legislation awaiting the Governor's signature would require the state police to expunge arrest records when juveniles turn 18 if they were never charged and have no recent arrests.
[Editor's note: this article was updated to reflect the passage of the legislation.] Over the last several years, juvenile justice advocates began noticing a troubling trend: Minors who were arrested for a crime but never charged in a delinquency petition were learning that their arrest records were somehow getting out to prospective employers, landlords, and others. How could it be that, in the strictly confidential juvenile justice system, young adults were facing roadblocks in their efforts to get jobs, job training, housing, licenses, and to pursue other productive endeavors that would let them move forward in life?
One young woman completed an Illinois Job Corps program and when she applied for her pharmacy technician license, the licensing agency learned that she had an "aggravated battery" on her record, said Carolyn Frazier, an attorney and clinical law professor with the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University School of Law. The girl was involved in a fight with other girls at school and was never charged with a crime, yet in some database, her arrest was listed without any dispositional information. Similarly, young man working as a janitor at a Chicago public school was fired after one of his annual background checks showed two arrests. Neither resulted in delinquency petitions or a finding of guilt.
As Frazier put it, we're in a "brave new world of data integration" where municipalities small and large are sharing information with one another, the state, and the federal government. State police used to send information to the FBI, but that practice ended three years ago.
A bill passed by the General Assembly and on the Governor's desk would begin to address this issue by requiring the state police, which receives all arrest records from every municipality, to expunge the records of any juvenile who has turned 18, was never charged, and who had no arrests six months prior to his or her 18th birthday. Senate bill 978 was sponsored by Kwame Raoul (D-Chicago). Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel also supported the legislation.
'[I]t's difficult to keep everything confidential'
For years, the Illinois State Police has been a repository for all arrests made in municipalities. Under existing law, 18 year olds may go to court and petition to have their arrests expunged, but it costs money and most young adults are unaware of this option. Adults can immediately petition to have their records expunged after an arrest or an acquittal.
"Even though, theoretically, you can file yourself, I don't think very many of us would be comfortable doing that. I think many children and their parents generally assume that because the child cleaned up the graffiti and apologized to the shop owner, there's nothing to worry about," said Elizabeth Clark, president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative. "With a statewide database…, it's difficult to keep everything confidential."
The legislation states that "[t]he Department of State Police shall automatically expunge, on an annual basis, law enforcement records pertaining to a minor who has been arrested if (a) the minor has been arrested and no petition for delinquency was filed with the clerk of the circuit court; (b) the minor has attained the age of 18; and (c) since the date of the minor's most recent arrest, at least 6 months have elapsed without an additional arrest." The bill also requires that an individual be appointed to ensure that the records are being expunged on an annual basis.
"This is a good place to start; a good first step" in reforming the juvenile justice system, Frazier said. Like other juvenile justice advocates, Frazier would like to see a legislative commission established to get to the root of why and how confidential information involving minors is being released. Additionally, they'd like arrest records that don't result in a delinquency petition withheld from the state police. And ideally, the U.S. Justice Department would order the FBI to follow the same directive that the Illinois State Police would under the proposed law.