Giving Kids a Fresh Start
The HBA/JCAP Juvenile Records Sealing Project
When Casey Johnson* was 15 years old, he and a friend were walking down the street one night after playing basketball. Several blocks away, two other young men were committing a robbery. A police car pulled up alongside Casey and his friend, and the officer ordered the boys to get in the car. Casey and his friend apparently fit the description of two robbery suspects. Casey told the police where he and his friend had been and what they had been doing, and he told the district attorney’s office the same thing. The DA’s office dropped the charges. Casey was told that, because he was a juvenile, any records regarding this arrest would be automatically expunged.
Ten years later, Casey successfully completed a university criminal justice program and was extended an employment offer with a Harris County police department. But without warning, he was later told the offer was being rescinded. Why? He had a juvenile record for robbery. Although he had nothing to do with the robbery and although charges against him were dismissed—and although he was assured the record of his arrest would be expunged—the record remained open and discoverable.
This scenario happens over and over again in Texas: individuals who have juvenile records for minor offenses that occur when they are as young as 11 years old, including those whose cases were completely dismissed, continue to have a discoverable juvenile criminal record. These records can prevent them from getting jobs, student loans, admission to college, or being accepted into the military—among other detriments. The luckier ones might learn they have a record; others never know why they are rejected from employment, educational, and other opportunities and programs.
The Houston Bar Association/Juvenile and Capital Advocacy Project Record Sealing Projects were created to give juveniles convicted of minor, non-violent offenses a second chance. With their records sealed, these young people can join the military, apply for jobs in government, and attend college without the stigma of a juvenile criminal record. In December 2016, the two programs reached a new milestone by sealing the 300th Harris County juvenile record.
These programs were developed by Judge Michael Schneider of the 315th District Court and Brian J. Fischer, an attorney and substitute associate judge/juvenile law master in the 315th District Court. The heart of the Houston Bar Association (HBA) program is the participation of volunteer attorneys from Houston law firms who donate their time and legal expertise to seal juvenile files in the Harris County court records. There are now numerous Houston law firms, including some of the city’s largest, as well as eight individuals, who are volunteering to seal cases. Judge Schneider and Fischer, both of whom hold leadership roles in the HBA’s Juvenile Law Section, were instrumental in helping the HBA create a training program for attorneys who want to participate in the program by providing onsite training at the law firms. The volunteer lawyers are taught how to prepare and file applications to seal records, how to set these applications for a hearing before a judge, and how to conduct the hearing.
In 2015, the HBA partnered with the University of Houston’s Juvenile and Capital Advocacy Program (JCAP), directed by Katya Dow, to expand services to help juveniles who were previously not eligible for sealing through the HBA’s program. Judge Schneider and Fischer voluntarily provided training for the JCAP program and the University of Houston Law Center Students who enrolled in a record-sealing course. The students, working under the supervision of Professor Dow, are assigned juvenile clients and trained to seal records; over the course of a semester, each student will seal three to four juvenile records. Through this new partnership between JCAP and the HBA, juveniles on probation for all misdemeanors and felony adjudications (meaning they were found guilty of the offense), as well as misdemeanor and felony deferred adjudications and non-suits (meaning theywere found guilty of the offense), as well as misdemeanor and felony deferred adjudications and non-suits (meaning they were not found guilty or, like Casey, had their charges dismissed), can apply to have their records sealed.
Prior to the implementation of these two programs, juveniles had nowhere to turn but a private attorney to seal their records (with prices ranging anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 to seal a record). Many of these juveniles did not even know they had records to seal (having been erroneously informed years before that the records would be automatically expunged), and many more could not afford the cost of sealing. Now, the Probation Department provides these juveniles with letters, informing them how to access the sealing programs, and JCAP has outreach programs to increase awareness in the communities and neighborhoods that records might exist, and that free sealing is available. In addition, the judges and associate judges in the 315th District Court advise juveniles and their parents of their right to seal the records and inform them about programs available.
Young men and women like Casey can be punished for a lifetime for petty offenses they might have committed as juveniles, and even for things they never did. The HBA and JCAP record-sealing programs aim to help these kids and make it possible for them to contribute to our communities by reaching their potential.
* The name has been changed.
Honorable Michael Schneider,
Judge 315 District Court, Harris County, Texas
Judge Michael “Mike” Schneider was appointed, then elected, to the 315th District Court in 2006. He was previously a Section Chief and Deputy Division Chief at the Harris County Attorney’s Office. He is immediate past chair of the HBA Juvenile Law Section, and he has been an ardent advocate and facilitator for the two record sealing programs.
Legal Practice Professor
Katya Dow is a Legal Practice Professor at The University of Houston Law Center and is the Legal Programs Director of the University of Houston’s Juvenile and Capital Advocacy Program. Katya is instrumental in teaching law students on the fundamentals of Juvenile Record Sealing and mentors the law students in the filing and presentation of sealing applications in Court.
Brian J. Fischer,
Attorney At Law
Brian Fischer is an attorney in Houston and is board certified in Juvenile Law having been certified with the first class in 2001. He is a past chair of the State Bar of Texas Juvenile Law Section and the Houston Bar Association Juvenile Law Section, the current program chair of the Houston Bar Association Juvenile Law Section, and conference chair of all the Juvenile Law and CPS seminars sponsored by the HBA-Juvenile Law Section. Brian is also a Substitute Associate Judge/Master in the Juvenile Courts of Harris County.