“I had two friends who passed away last year and it hurt me deeply. It was all because of gun violence and gangs and since then I think I wanted something to change,” said Xitlali Avila, 16, from John Hancock High School.
Charlie Beltran, recently released from the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center shared, “I was part of the juvenile justice system, so I know what it’s like to be in it and it’s not a pleasant thing. I’m here to share my experience and make things a little better.”
“My father was in jail my whole life and it kind of affected me. I want to help make the transition better for teens [who are] like my father, like how to deal with peer pressure on the streets and things,” said Anthony Buford, student at Harold Washington College.
It was the conviction and passion of youth leaders like Lali, Charlie, and Anthony on Mikva’s Juvenile Justice Council (JJC) that led to the creation of Expunge.io, an app that provides a pipeline to juvenile record expungement by linking qualified youth to pro bono lawyers who will help them through the legal process to erase their records. The group of 16 youth leaders worked all through the summer to figure out what makes previous offenders so vulnerable to falling back into the system and how can they address these problems.
The group reflected on their own experiences, interviewed fellow youth in detention centers, and consulted academic research to figure out that among the factors affecting recidivism, lack of job opportunities was of major importance. They discovered that businesses and employers were not willing to hire someone with a criminal record. Experts and officials told the youth leaders that many youth actually do qualify to have their records erased if they follow through with the often confusing expungement process, but the sad reality was that the vast majority of youth don’t seek expungement. In fact, youth leaders found out that in 2012, 25,000 youth were arrested (added to their RAP sheets) but only 70 youth got their records expunged, less than one tenth of 1%.
JJC youth leaders began working on how to make the expungement process accessible and less intimidating to teens so that they could get their records sealed and enter the job market and college application process without any barriers. The idea of an app seemed almost too simple, yet it was one that everyone agreed on.
They advertised their idea using social media, spoke about it with Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Executive Director of the Juvenile Advisory Council, Juliana Stratton. They rallied other partners such as Project Nia to join their cause and connected with tech guru Dan O’Neil of Smart Chicago to help them convert their vision into something tangible. Very soon, JJC was in conversation coder, Cathy Deng, to create this tech tool that could benefit thousands.
This was a big achievement for the group and for teens who didn’t know the first thing about getting their records expunged. Since its launch in January 2014, the web app Expung.io has had over 8000 hits and has started the expungement process for over 150 individuals. We’re very proud of their success!