Second Chances: Why Massachusetts Needs to Clear Kids’ Records

Teens Leading the Way has joined forces with advocacy groups and lawmakers to fight to expunge the records of young people who need a clean slate. Will their bill become law?
Teens Leading the Way

Teens Leading the Way and their allies at the State House. / Photo courtesy of Jean Trounstine

“How did one of the most progressive states in the country end up being ranked 40 out of 50?” asked Joselande Simon, a member of Teens Leading the Way (TLTW), a statewide, youth-led coalition and policy-making organization.

On September 16, Simon was part of a panel that was testifying before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary at the State House. She and other members of TLTW were supporting a bill, which, as they said, would “erase my sentence so I can write a novel.” Simon was talking, of course, about Massachusetts.

In a nationwide report, the Juvenile Law Center placed Massachusetts below Louisiana on keeping records confidential, sealed, and expunged. Simon and other youth leaders from Boston, Everett, Haverhill, Lowell, Lawrence, and Worcester want to rectify that. They are pushing for Senate bill S.900, sponsored by Sen. Karen Spilka (Ashland) and its companion House bill H.1433, whose chief sponsor is Rep. Kay Kahn (Newton).

Supporters argued that the time has come to reduce barriers for justice-involved teens by allowing criminal records to be expunged under certain circumstances. Currently, juvenile records in Massachusetts can be sealed after three years. But sealing does not allow for a clean slate. If a youth has a conviction on his or her record, employers, college admission boards, and landlords can still discover that a crime has been committed even if they cannot see details, and thus, thwart a young person’s opportunities.

As reported in the Boston Globe, “The lack of information encourages speculation about the seriousness of the offense, and often may lead someone to think the worst. That’s usually not true. The Juvenile Law Center has found that 95 percent of youth in juvenile justice systems nationwide committed nonviolent offenses.”

Senator Karen Spilka testifying

Senator Karen Spilka testifying. / Photo by Jean Trounstine

Senator Spilka, testifying for her bill, said that “17,000 youth come in contact with the system in Massachusetts every year.” She discussed how studies on brain maturation have shown that this age group lacks adult maturity in respect to judgment and impulse control. “Juvenile records can follow them into adulthood,” and “Expungement gives them a chance to move on with their lives,” said Spilka. Organizations such as the American Bar Association agree.

TLTW flanked the room at the State House as legislators, laypersons, and experts testified. “We prioritize youth development over the win,” said Geoff Foster, Director of Organizing and Policymaking at United to Empower Change in Lowell, who works with TLTW. He said the group, which started 11 years ago, seeks to empower youth to make lasting change. “It is really 500 to 600 young people choosing, creating, researching, and running policy campaigns. They have been “passionately working on their bill,” he added.

According to Naoka Carey, Executive Director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice, the expungement bill would allow those under age 21 with misdemeanor convictions, who served their sentence and had no new offense, to file a petition and seek to have their record deleted immediately.

In a telephone interview, Carey said, “Automatic expungement of misdemeanors would go for crimes like shoplifting, violating a town ordinance, or operating a motor vehicle without a license or without insurance.” She said that under the proposed statute, those with felony convictions would need to petition a judge for expungement and the judge would make decisions case by case. Carey added, “I feel strongly that there should be immediate expungement for youth in terms of misdemeanors; any waiting period would be difficult because so much is happening at this critical time in their lives.”

Victor Trinidad, a 20-year-old who now works for UTEC, is an example of the kind of young man affected by current Massachusetts law. Trinidad, who also testified on the youth panel along with Stephanie Bellapianta and Esteban Marte, said he and his stepbrother had gotten into a fight when he was 14. It blossomed into a physical skirmish and Trinidad ended up hitting his mother and his sister. His mother called the police. Luckily, he thought at the time, the charges of assault and battery were dropped by Judge Jay Blitzman, first justice of Lowell Juvenile Court, and he received 24 hours of community service.

Victor

Victor Trinidad at the State House. / Photo by Geoff Foster Provided

Victor, like many young people, believed that because the charges had been dropped, and because he had completed his service, his record was clean. But when he applied for the National Guard, he lost both the opportunity to serve and the chance to attend a four-year college free of charge. The Guard had gotten hold of his record and turned him down.

Judge Blitzman, a fierce advocate for youth, said succinctly in a 2014 interview for NPR, “If you believe in second chances, I think you have to believe in expungement.”

The Judiciary Committee will now have to decide whether it agrees. And if the bill does come to a vote in the Legislature, you can bet Teens Leading the Way will lobby their senators and reps, and again show up at the State House in full force.




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