Starting in November, Duquesne University law students will travel to eight of Pittsburgh’s public housing complexes to help residents expunge juvenile convictions that put them at risk of eviction.
In Pennsylvania, a person’s entire juvenile record becomes public if they are convicted of a felony as a minor – between the ages of 14 and 18. Duquesne School of Law assistant professor Tiffany Sizemore-Thompson said that is the most common reason a record becomes public. And once it’s open, every part of the record is public.
“If you’re 14 and you’re adjudicated for a felony and then when you’re 16 you have a possession of marijuana charge, which is a very low-level misdemeanor, that possession of marijuana charge is now public too,” she said. “Because once your record becomes public, then the whole, entire thing is public.”
But, she said in Pennsylvania, it’s fairly simple to expunge some of those offenses from a public record. It just requires a lawyer.
“It’s a motion that has to be filed, to be presented to the judge,” she said. “That takes some time and if you’re paying someone for that, you’re paying by the hour.”
When Sizemore-Thompson worked as a public defender for Allegheny County, she said saw a need for free expungement. Last fall, she helped open Duquesne’s Juvenile Defender Clinic.
Since then, she said the clinic has helped clean juvenile records for more than 30 people free of charge. Those people were at risk of eviction from public housing because of their public juvenile records.
Under federal law, a person applying for public housing can be denied for even a misdemeanor offense. If they are living with a family, the entire household can be disqualified because of the child’s delinquency adjudication.
Sizemore-Thompson said a juvenile record doesn’t have to follow a person through adulthood, though.
The Housing Authority of Pittsburgh offered a $100,000 grant to enable lawyers to travel to public housing complexes, rather than ask clients to travel to the university.