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New app clears up juvenile ex-offenders' paper trail

by Chris Alan Williams
Jan 23, 2014

JJC Students

Mikva Challenge

Students from the Mikva Challenge's Juvenile Justice Council at a meeting with Juliana Stratton, executive director of the Cook County Justice Advisory Council.

Teens with juvenile records can now go to to start the process to clear their names.

Those with juvenile records can find it harder to get a job, further their education and enlist in the military. Yet, only a small fraction takes the steps to expunge their records, according to Chris Rudd from the Mikva Challenge, a youth empowerment organization, located in Chicago.

The expungement process involves “a lot of government websites that are not tech-savvy or youth friendly,” Rudd said. The information “is hard to find.”

Sharlyn Grace, an attorney who specializes in juvenile justice, said there is also confusion about the expungement process.

“A lot of people think that if they were just arrested and they never had a court case, they don’t have a record, and that’s not true in Illinois,” said Grace, of LAF, which offers legal assistance for people living in poverty in Cook County. “Arrests and court cases will stay on a record until someone comes before the court.”

According to Grace, the problem occurs when the person with a criminal record agrees to a background check and the previous arrests come to light.

In January 2014, the website was launched to help navigate the expungement process. Grace said a high percentage of juvenile records can be erased, yet the total number of expungements in Cook County is “consistently fewer than 100 per year.”

The website began when Rudd asked the students on the Mikva Challenge Juvenile Justice Council, “What tools, policies and practices do youth need to positively transition from corrections to communities?”

Then the students, including Lali Avila, 18, a senior at John Hancock High School in the West Elsdon neighborhood, focused on making juvenile expungements easier.

“ was made for teenagers to get right to the point and know what they have to do to go through the whole process,” Avila said.

Rudd said once the council members had the idea and researched what it would take, they needed someone to help build the website. Rudd knew Cathy Deng, a local developer who had interviewed with the Mikva Challenge, so he reached out to her via Twitter.

Deng said the timing was perfect: “At the time I was learning web development and was eager to get a tangible project,” she said.

Grace worked with Deng to help her grasp the legal technicalities.

“The main obstacle was trying to strike a balance between making a tool with language that was accessible and having language that was legally precise and accurate,” Deng said. “I still don’t feel like I fully grasp it. I keep running into nuances that I don’t completely understand.” has already made a difference and word has been spreading. Eighteen people have gone through the website, where they answer a series of questions to determine their eligibility. The website then forwards their information to Grace, who follows up with them.

“I’ve been putting it on Facebook, I’ve told my teachers about it, I’ve talked in front of my classes and they put me on the announcements at school,” Avila said.