Dec. 14, 2018 — Established in 2014 as a mentoring program to reach youth before they are swept into the juvenile and criminal justice systems, the Juvenile & Capital Advocacy Project at the University of Houston has extended its reach over the years to include representation of delinquent youth in court, public school classroom presentations, and sealing of juvenile court records.
"Our record-sealing program has so far sealed more than 400 juvenile records, freeing these youth to continue their educations by obtaining financial aid, finding meaningful employment, or serving in the military," said Katya Dow, '92, a Professor of Practice and Legal Programs Director for JCAP. "With the addition of our dual status representation and school disciplinary programs, we are poised to provide crucial legal services to literally hundreds more youth in Harris and surrounding counties."
JCAP's Dual-Status Youth Representation Program will expand in January from one to all three Harris County juvenile courts as well as the CPS Project Court. Under the supervision of JCAP attorneys, Law Center students handle all legal aspects of delinquency cases (and some adult criminal cases, as the age for adult criminal responsibility in Texas begins at age 17), ranging from misdemeanors to felonies. Students also investigate and address factors in the foster care system that impact the ability of the youth they are representing to successfully complete their cases, not recidivate, and move on with their lives successfully.
"Adoption by all the incoming juvenile judges shows strong support by the courts and recognition of what we have accomplished since starting the program in the fall of 2017," Dow said. She offered special thanks to Dena Fisher, newly appointed associate justice for the 315th Harris County Juvenile District Court, for helping launch and develop the program.
JCAP's newest outreach, the School Discipline Program, has taught more than 500 public school students about their legal rights under the Fourth and Fifth Amendments when engaging with law enforcement.
Christina Beeler, a 2018 graduate of the Law Center who serves as a JCAP staff attorney and legal clinic supervisor, has conducted more than 20 know-your-rights presentations at schools and before community organizations since the program began this fall. She also represents youths in school disciplinary proceedings, juvenile court, and adult criminal court for disciplinary infractions on public school campuses.
A former public school teacher and Teach for America corps member, Beeler was selected to work with JCAP as an Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by Latham & Watkins LLP.
"My work aims to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline, by which kids are pushed out of schools and into the juvenile justice or criminal justice systems for mostly minor behaviors," Beeler explained. "Excluding kids from classrooms as punishment usually does not address the underlying issues causing most student misbehaviors, including trauma and mental illness."
"We want to keep kids in schools where they belong and to stop the school-to-prison pipeline here in Harris County," she added.
A third component of the JCAP program that has cleared the path to a brighter future for hundreds of youths by sealing their juvenile court records also expanded in 2017 to help adults remove certain information from their criminal histories. In January, the program will begin a partnership with Beacon Law, an organization that provides social services to the homeless, including adult expunction assistance.
The Law Center's Record-Sealing and Expunction program is the only program in Texas providing sealing of juvenile delinquency records at no cost. Law students learn to practice in three different court systems–juvenile, criminal and civil–and receive training in three different procedures: juvenile records sealing, expunctions of adult criminal records, and nondisclosure orders for adult criminal records. Since 2015, JCAP has sealed more than 400 juvenile records, helping people get past youthful mistakes that can present major barriers throughout their adult life.
Although records of juvenile delinquency are not accessible by the general public, they are accessible to several agencies and other entities and can impact employment and education opportunities, eligibility for military service, licensing and certifications, applications for housing, and public benefits. Similarly, instances of criminal arrests or charges, even if dismissed or no-billed by a grand jury, are included in a criminal "paper trail" and can dog the life of an adult if not expunged.
On Nov. 26, JCAP and the Houston Bar Association collaborated on a CLE training program that drew more than 80 attorneys interested in taking on record-sealing cases pro bono.