May 23, 2018
By: Ronnie Polaneczky
Picture: Melissa McCleery
Tuck this tale into the pull-your-hair-‘til-you-scream file. And then say a prayer for Maria Navarro, who has end-stage cancer and deserves to spend as many moments as she has left with her daughter, Sasha.
As a kid, Sasha (who asks that her last name not be used here) watched her mom weep with worry about how to pay the mortgage on their Kensington home. Sasha’s father had gone AWOL years before, and the family was in constant danger of losing their house.
Sasha took to the rough streets outside the front door to help her mom, selling drugs for a year until she was arrested at age 15.
“I was young and ignorant,” says Sasha, now 30.
She spent a few months in juvenile detention, sailed through probation without incident and got involved in activities – including rec-center cleaning and after-school homework coaching – that helped the neighborhood she had once harmed.
She got her high-school diploma, got married, had a little girl, worked in retail and then applied for the most important job of her life – to be a caregiver to her mother, Maria Navarro, who had been diagnosed with liver cancer.
Navarro was sick enough to require home care, and needy enough for Medicaid to pay for it. Since Medicaid allows relatives of the ill to apply for a state-paid job to care for their kin, that’s what Sasha did.
“I could take care of my mom without having to be unemployed,” says Sasha. “I thought, this is perfect.”
The agency that oversaw her mom’s care, though, had bad news: Sasha’s juvenile criminal record disqualified her from consideration.
Even though fifteen years had passed since her arrest. Even though she’d been a model citizen ever since. Even though – can this be emphasized enough? – Navarro very much wanted Sasha to care for her.
This brand of frustration was supposed to be prevented by the 2011 passage of the city’s “Fair Chance Hiring” law (formerly known as “ban the box” because, on job applications, it removed the “box” asking on about criminal records).
The original law forbade employers from asking about criminal records before the first interview. It was amended in 2016 to forbid employers from running criminal background checks before a conditional employment offer has been made.
Now, City Council Bill 180368 seeks to further strengthen the law by explicitly including juvenile criminal records in the mix. The bill will be read at Council’s Thursday meeting and put up for a vote on June 7th.
It needs to pass, and Rue Landau explained why at a Council hearing last week about the bill’s merits.
“Studies have shown that ex-offenders, particularly nonviolent offenders, who are gainfully employed soon after incarceration, were much less likely to commit another crime,” said Landau, executive director of the city’s Human Relations Commission.
What’s more, the recidivism rate of offenders arrested at ages 16, 18, and 20 years old who had no additional interaction with the criminal justice system, declined over time, approaching the same risk as people of the same age in the general population after 3.8 to 7.7 years.
That’s why it’s so frustrating that increased access to juvenile records – through online databases and the services of those background-check companies whose ads entice us to click away – only increases the likelihood of life-long consequences for adults adjudicated as kids.
Those consequence include limiting access to employment, housing, higher education and other necessities of a productive, satisfying life, says Councilwoman Helen Gym, who chairs Council’s Committee on Children and Youth, which introduced the bill.
The bill is part of a bigger effort the committee is making to work with state legislators to better seal juvenile records. Existing “seals” are no guarantee a record won’t be later accessed – even if the record shows only a child’s “contact” with the judicial system, not an arrest or conviction.
“The whole point of having a juvenile-justice system in the first place is to make sure that the decisions and actions of children don’t follow them into adult life,” Gym says.
Obviously, some youthful, heinous actions deserve to reverberate across decades, which is why teens like Marvin Roberts, 16, are rightfully charged as adults.
Last September, he was on probation for robbery when he allegedly killed Spring Garden dad Gerard Grandzol during a robbery. Grandzol bled in the street, in front of his hysterical toddler daughter.
But for kids like the worried child Sasha once was – for whom the juvenile justice system actually worked and who’ve created exemplary lives since they lost their way – those criminal records should be no one’s business but their own.
“Sasha is a hard worker, a great mother, wife and daughter – an all-around wonderful human being,” says Jamie Gullen, a supervising attorney with Community Legal Services, who has been working with Sasha to keep her juvenile record sealed. “She doesn’t deserve to have that record follow her around. She deserves opportunities.”
Sasha now works as a home-health aide for a client whose case is overseen by an agency willing to overlook Sasha’s long-ago arrest while — sigh — her own mother is cared for by a stranger.
“She’s takes good care of my mom, and and my mom likes her,” Sasha says graciously of the aide. “That’s all that matters to me now.”