Ask NCFY: 'How Do I Help Clients Try to Clear an Arrest Record?'

A judge.

Q: As a social worker at a runaway and homeless youth program, I work with a lot of young people who have been involved with the justice system. These youth want to move on, get legal employment, and rent their own apartments. How do I help them clear their arrest records?

A: Many youth who have been on the street have arrest records – particularly for misdemeanors like loitering or shoplifting -- that must be cleared for them to have the best chance of getting a job or even signing a lease. January Contreras, CEO of nonprofit legal firm Project ALWAYS, the Arizona Legal Women and Youth Services in Phoenix, offers the following advice for helping young people get their records set aside or expunged.

  1. Sit down with your client and get them to make a list of each arrest. What county did each happen in? What court? What are the details of the case? What are the extenuating circumstances that might make a court look at the arrest more favorably?
  2. Consider ordering a background check on the young person, with their permission, if you have the funding to do so. Because of the nature of street life, many young people can’t remember all of their arrests.
  3. You or your client should call each of the courts and ask what their procedure is for expunging records. Oftentimes, it’s a simple form.
  4. Help your client fill out the form. Pay careful attention to how you develop the “story” about why the arrest happened and what has happened after that.  For example, provide any details the young person is comfortable sharing about their home life and their experiences with homelessness. Also focus on what the young person has done to move toward self-sufficiency.
  5. Prepare young people for different outcomes. In some jurisdictions, a judge will expunge the arrest after simply reviewing the form, and it will come back in the mail. In others, the judge may ask for a hearing. In Contreras’s experience, a judge may call for a hearing if the offenses are more recent or more severe. 

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