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The National Association of Counties has recognized Chester County’s Fresh Start Juvenile Record Expungement program with an Achievement Award which highlights innovative criminal justice programs at the local level.
The initiative, in its second year, is the brainchild of the county Juvenile Probation Office, District Attorney’s Office, President Judge, and the county Clerk of Courts Office. The program is designed for non-violent offenders who were never convicted of their low level offense; instead they successfully completed a diversionary program.
“When eligible low-level juvenile offenders turn 18 and have not expunged their records, — although they have remained crime-free and just have not taken the opportunity to expunge their records — we do so on their behalf,” said Yolanda Van de Krol, the Chester County Clerk of Courts.
Although juvenile records are sealed in her office, their presence in other systems can pose a problem down the road. People previously entangled in the criminal justice system can have their lives ruined down the line.
“Often somebody is applying for a job or college or an apartment, and this juvenile record will be revealed, and their opportunity will vanish,” Van de Krol said.
Chester County has received calls from people 25 years after the fact because their juvenile record still existed. While these records could always be wiped upon request if someone was eligible, Van de Krol said that this highlighted the need for an automatic expungement process.
“We get these calls periodically, where people are in a panic about something, usually a job or an apartment … and they need to quickly expunge their record. So we say if we just do it on the front end, we won’t have people calling us in a panic later,” Van de Krol said.
Since coming online in August 2019 following recommendations from the county’s Juvenile Probation Office, the Fresh Start program has expunged the records of more than 150 people a year.
“Kids do things. They make mistakes, and you don’t want it to be a lifetime mistake, especially if that was sort of an eye opener for them and they stay clean after that. So one mistake should not be a life sentence and I’m hoping other counties realize that and realize that they can do this too,” Van de Krol said.
Van de Krol added that the county is not done improving the system. Chesco’s Criminal Justice Advisory Board is currently looking for new ways for the county to improve reentry and reduce recidivism.