Judge Schneider plays key role in program to give some clean slate

Judge: Sealing criminal records of certain juveniles an access to justice issue.

HOUSTON – A new Houston Bar Association program aimed at helping reformed juvenile offenders access better educational opportunities and jobs is up and running after getting key support from Judge Michael “Mike” Schneider.

The program, recently featured in The Houston Chronicle, pairs private sector attorneys with former juvenile offenders trying to have their criminal records sealed. Judge Schneider, 315th Juvenile District Court, helped plan the initiative and provided training to many of the attorneys involved.

Judge Schneider and colleagues on the bench have also created special dockets to hear the requests from indigent juveniles and their volunteer attorneys with at no additional cost to taxpayers.

“Programs like this one effectively team our justice system with the private sector,” said Judge Schneider. “By giving these former juvenile offenders access to volunteer counsel, we are allowing them to access laws on the books with which they can seal their records and move on with their lives. When they are deserving, we are helping them put the past behind them and pave the way to success.”

In many cases, attorneys paired with the former juvenile offenders in this program have little or no experience in juvenile law. They must complete training so they can be a part of the effort.

“That has a benefit too,” Judge Schneider said. “It gets a broader cross section of attorneys involved in our system and exposes them to a different arena of law. It also brings fresh perspectives into our courtrooms. That’s never a bad thing. These attorneys can also now go into the community and educate people about how the juvenile system really works.”

Texas law allows juveniles who commit a wide variety of violent and nonviolent crimes and successfully complete the terms of punishment to have their records sealed through a court procedure. But many eligible defendants either don’t know about the law or can’t afford an attorney to handle the procedure.

Later in life, they try to join the military or access educational and professional opportunities and find their juvenile record comes back to haunt them and hinder their success.

The HBA program helps fill a gap by helping certain former offenders who qualify for help based on their finances and previous record.

“In the end, this is an access to justice issue,” said Judge Schneider. “Programs like this help people access what the law allows them to do in certain cases. That helps those people continue on the road to success and that benefits us as a community.”

And, Judge Schneider added, having records sealed does not hamper law enforcement. If, in the future, a person who has their record sealed is charged or questioned by police, police can easily access their file.

Eligibility for the HBA program varies and does not cover all situations under which a record may be sealed. If you were sentenced to deferred adjudication or formal probation for a nonviolent misdemeanor offense, you may be eligible to apply for a free sealing of a juvenile record, if you meet financial eligibility requirements. Call the HBA at (713) 759-1133 for more information.

Judge Schneider said he has heard many have already contacted the HBA about the program.

Judge Schneider, who has been at the forefront of many innovative juvenile justice reforms, was elected to preside in the 315th Juvenile District Court in 2006. His victory came months after Texas Governor Rick Perry appointed him to the bench. Voters overwhelmingly returned Judge Schneider to the bench in 2010 and he will run for a third term in 2014.