This article is one in a series examining the unique challenges that emerging adults – those ages 18 to 25 – face when they come into contact with the justice system. We hope this series illuminates the different angles of this issue and expands our public vision of how to seek justice for individuals and communities in this critical period of life.
Expungement is a lifeline for justice-involved citizens. Expungement is a legal term that describes the process of destroying records and making them inaccessible to the general public. However, for emerging adults with a juvenile criminal record, expungement is not merely a legal term: it can mean the difference between an apartment and homelessness, between getting a job and lapsing into recidivism. While crucial, expungement, particularly of juvenile records, is far from simple, and the consequences of a criminal record can be life-altering.
Spotlight on Emerging Adults
Psychologist Jeffrey Arnett defines the “critical developmental period” spanning 18-25 as “emerging adult[hood]” one where adolescents transition from youth to adult and begin to engage in society. Emerging adults make up a disproportionate percentage of the incarcerated population and are highly likely to recidivate, largely due to the fallout of the juvenile justice system. In fact, MIT researcher Joseph Doyle found that, by age 25, 40% of juvenile offenders were incarcerated in an adult prison. Any policy aimed at reducing incarceration among emerging adults must address the needs and challenges faced by young adults exiting the juvenile justice system.
Housing and Employment
A juvenile criminal record is one of the biggest barriers for justice-involved emerging adults reentering society because these records can bar access to housing and employment, escalating the likelihood of recidivism. Many emerging adults reentering communities will do so through public housing, but a record can preclude applicants from eligibility for public housing, limiting their access to this social safety net. Despite not having formal legal access to juvenile records, Public Housing Authorities (PHAs) often access these records informally or through information-sharing agreements with local law enforcement agencies and use them to determine housing eligibility. This can result in PHAs evicting youth and their families. Even into adulthood, these individuals may be barred from public housing, as rental applications often screen for juvenile records. One of the best ways for emerging adults to find safe and affordable housing after returning to their communities is by moving in with friends and family. However, for emerging adults whose records have not been expunged — moving in with friends or family could put themselves and their loved ones at risk of eviction.
A juvenile record can also be a barrier to employment. If upon request, an emerging adult discloses a juvenile record during the application phase, it decreases their chances of employment. These employment barriers suffocate earnings over time. The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit advocating for a more humane response to crime, cites a study finding that time in a juvenile corrections facility leads to “lower wages, fewer weeks worked, and less job experience by age 39.”
Our analysis of the injustices and challenges facing emerging adults is missing a crucial piece if we do not discuss racial barriers. The criminal justice system historically and currently targets and incarcerates Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) citizens at a higher rate than their white peers. This includes the way that young people of color are over-policed in schools and disproportionately involved in the juvenile justice system. Students of color are more likely to be detained, and thus more likely to face the challenges associated with a juvenile record as they enter adulthood.
To dissolve emerging adults’ barriers to housing and employment, we must correct prevailing misconceptions that all juvenile records are confidential and are automatically expunged at 18.
First, not all juvenile records are confidential. A report from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) reveals that in 33 states, schools can access the records of juvenile offenders. In addition, several have detrimentally low protections for juvenile offenders’ privacy. For example, in Kansas, the public can access juvenile records through an online database. In a particularly egregious violation of confidentiality, some states share juvenile records with private companies that then sell the records online.
Second, juvenile records do not always get automatically expunged when a person turns 18. Once again, the process varies by state. This can mean anything from notifying the youth of the process, to merely ‘setting aside’ the record but not sealing it or preventing public access. To make things more complex, expungement may not apply to both court and police records, leaving records containing DNA, photos, and personal information accessible to law enforcement and the public.
Applying a Public Justice Framework
As Christians, we are called in Scripture to love our neighbors (Matthew 19:19) and seek the welfare of the city we live in (Jeremiah 29:7). As part of this calling, Christians seek to cultivate a society where all people are integrated into their communities and have the freedom to live morally and responsibly. For emerging adults, a juvenile record can inhibit their ability to reenter communities, contribute to society through employment, or feel at home in their communities through stable housing.
Christians also have a responsibility to serve the marginalized. This call permeates Scripture but is particularly highlighted in Isaiah 1:17 which says, “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” Many current housing and employment public policies legalize discrimination against juvenile offenders. As Christians, we are called to pursue a justice that restores these emerging adults to full membership in their communities and plead their cause, advocating against the policies that inhibit the flourishing of these individuals and the places they are returning to.
As Christians, we are called to pursue a justice that restores these emerging adults to full membership in their communities and plead their cause, advocating against the policies that inhibit the flourishing of these individuals and the places they are returning to.
The Center for Public Justice’s Guideline on Welfare suggests that the call to be a “neighbor” — to help those who are in need — is addressed to all people and all institutions and exists to enable those in need to reach self-sufficiency and be in a position to help others. The Center for Public Justice also outlines that government’s responsibility is to legislate, enforce and adjudicate public laws for the safety, welfare and public order of all citizens. In addition, government is called to uphold the common good of the community, protecting citizens from injustices, such as incomplete expungement or housing and employment discrimination.
The concerns facing juvenile offenders entering adulthood involve both government policy and contribute to a significant burden on communities through housing access and a loss of economic contribution. Therefore, our response to this issue must involve efforts from both the government and civil society.
The government can address the challenges facing justice-involved emerging adults by streamlining the process of expungement. Since much of the complexity is due to variation between states, a potential solution would be for the federal government to homogenize expungement law across the states. Standardizing the practice of expunging juvenile records automatically once a youth turns 18 would also maximize a youth’s ability to gain housing and employment into emerging adulthood.
The federal government should also consider an adjustment to exclusionary public housing policies. For instance, Public Housing Authorities (PHAs) should be prevented from expelling families who are housing a child with a juvenile record.
The government can also legislate and administer public policies that aid emerging adults in securing jobs. A recent bill introduced in Illinois included provisions to give nonviolent juvenile offenders access to youth employment initiatives, educational resources, and parental mentorship training, improving their prospects of success as they enter adulthood.
In addition to training, the Annie E. Casey Foundation recommends that state legislatures adopt “Ban the box” policies that postpone the review of an applicant’s criminal history until later in the hiring process for state government jobs. This policy was recently implemented as part of the Fair Chance Act, applying to federal employees.
However, Ban the Box policies have had the unexpected consequence of increasing discriminatory hiring practices against young African-American men who have never been incarcerated. There is evidence to suggest that without access to information suggesting otherwise, employers engage in statistical discrimination by assuming that all Black male applicants are potentially ex-offenders. Any efforts to decrease discriminatory policies against justice-involved emerging adults will also have to grapple with racism in addition to ingrained prejudices against the formerly incarcerated.
The contributions of civil society are also essential in creating a social safety net. In this case, these institutions often have optimal efficacy when government supports their services, ensuring that these institutions reach individuals upon reentry. CPJ’s Guideline on Citizenship asserts that citizens “share with governments the responsibility to uphold a just political community.” We are thus called to care for the wellbeing of emerging adults, particularly those whose contact with the juvenile justice system has made them vulnerable, as a part of upholding a just political community.
Nonprofits are one essential component of reentry efforts because they can provide legal assistance for expungement. One nonprofit addressing the need for expungement assistance in justice-involved youth is the James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy, a legal aid in Evanston, Illinois.
These nonprofits can also equip and train young adults in accessing employment. The Baltimore Ex-Offender Program provides job placement services for justice-involved people in order to combat recidivism. In addition to addressing spiritual needs, nonprofits and faith-based organizations can help emerging adults begin earning income, which is crucial to helping them avoid homelessness.
Churches are also well positioned to connect community members with available resources, whether government programs, expungement workshops, or nonprofits assisting with job placement, education, and/or housing. There is a significant history of churches hosting expungement workshops, including First Baptist Church of Glenarden and Ebenezer Baptist Church. Rev. Adrienne Zackery of Crossroads UMC, in an interview with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, suggests that seeking an expungement at church is preferable to going to court because “people feel safe coming to the church. As a congregation, we are partnering with our community to be able to give them an opportunity for a second chance.” Faith in Action has even published a toolkit to help churches learn to organize expungement events in their own communities.
For those with juvenile records, accessing housing, work and other markers of adulthood can be a lifeline preventing them from falling into patterns of recidivism and incarceration. Expungement is a crucial part of helping emerging adults with juvenile records to flourish and reintegrate into their communities after they have completed their sentence. In order to support justice-involved emerging adults, both the government and civil society will need to work together for their good. Christian citizens should commit to advocating for these changes to actualize hope at the other end of a prison sentence.
Emily Keefer is the Shared Justice Program Assistant for the summer of 2023. She is a rising senior at Wheaton College studying Political Science and Urban Studies.