DPD volunteers help former defendants get juvenile records sealed

Nearly once a month, three Department of Public Defense employees give over an evening to help adults struggling with the long-lasting repercussions of mistakes they made as teenagers. Some of the people who show up at the free legal clinic can’t get a job; others are denied housing; still others get by-passed for graduate school – all because of a criminal record from their days as a youth.

The DPD employees – Kari Boyum, an attorney, Matthew Pang, also an attorney, and Ryan Gray, an investigator – work with law students and other legal professionals at the monthly clinic held at one of DPD’s offices. Their job is to help people navigate a complex legal process, enabling them to petition the court to get their juvenile records sealed. All of those who work at the clinic are volunteers.

DPD volunteersThe Juvenile Record Sealing Project began in 2004, launched by George Yeannakis, now special counsel to TeamChild, and Kim Ambrose, a law professor at the University of Washington, under the auspices of Street Youth Legal Advocates of Washington (SYLAW). Today, a decade later, Yeannakis estimates the clinic has helped at least 500 clients seal around 1,000 records. It’s now managed by TeamChild.

The need is great, Yeannakis says. Washington is one of the few states in the country that does not keep juvenile records confidential. In fact, up until last October, the state sold these records to background check companies. What’s more, Yeannakis added, TeamChild couldn’t do this work without the help of several steady volunteers, including Boyum, Pang and Gray. “It’s been great to have such consistent volunteers,” he said.

The three say they volunteer because they’re troubled by a system that allows people to be haunted by past mistakes, especially ones that took place during their teens. “I don’t think that’s how our society should be,” Pang said. “You obviously can’t have kids committing violent offenses. But some of these things are minor, and it really marks them as a problem. … They do something stupid, but then they’re branded for life.”

Gray, who as an investigator runs the criminal histories for the monthly clinic, said many of the people who show up have dramatically turned their lives around. “But they can’t get a house because an Assault 2 from 1998 comes up on a background check,” he said. One woman wanted to get a job helping elderly people, he recalled. “This was holding her back.”

Sometimes as few as two show up at the drop-in clinic. Other times, 14 to 15 walk in. Each one has a story. And each one finds the process of trying to seal their records – which entails considerable paperwork as well as a pro se court appearance – complex and overwhelming. “It’s nice to be able to do this,” Boyum said.

The Juvenile Record Sealing Clinic was the first in the state, Yeannakis said. Over the years, he and Ambrose have helped other cities and law schools start one; such clinics now exist in Spokane, the Tri-Cities and Skagit County. Seattle’s clinic is run by law students from the University of Washington and Seattle University, with attorneys such as Pang and Boyum supervising their work.

Pang said he enjoys volunteering at the clinic not only because he’s helping clients but also because he’s working with law students. So much of law school, he said, focuses on abstract legal theory, not the mechanics of legal work – the need to file, for instance, three nearly duplicative documents, as is the case when sealing records. “I think it’s very important in our field to help out the law students,” he said. “When you’re in law school, you don’t learn why you have to file three of almost the same documents. This clinic is a chance for them to see what working as a lawyer is really like.”

Pictured above, from left, are Kari Boyum, Ryan Gray and Matthew Pang. Photo: Leslie Brown. This article originally ran in DPD’s Employee Newsletter.