‘Fresh Start’ program offers clean records to Houstonians with misdemeanors

The possibility of finally putting a 1993 misdemeanor behind her brings tears to 53-year-old Jennifer Sigers.

“I’m more than excited for all of this to pass as well,” said Sigers, who was among at least 100 people who showed up at a North Houston community center for the opportunity to have certain non-violent offenses removed from their criminal record. The Saturday morning event was the final resource fair affiliated with the new Fresh Start program with the Harris County Courts.

“I’m ashamed of it,” Sigers said of the incident from around 30 years ago that still appears on her criminal record, which happened after she said police had her. misidentified while chasing someone else who eluded the police at her sister’s apartment complex.

“I am a kind and gentle person. And when you have people asking you “do you have a past” and you tell them, they turn around and look down on you, you’re that bad person. I’m not a bad person,” said Sigers, who drove from her home in the spring to participate in the program and brought her two sons to see if they could benefit as well.

More than two hours before the start of the Harris County Courts Fresh Start event, people were outside to register, indicating considerable community interest in the proposed programs – sealing records as well such as receiving free children’s backpacks, free enhanced library cards, COVID-19 vaccines and immigration consultations.

Saturday’s event is the third Fresh Start community outreach event hosted by Harris County Courts to seal cases, which can be a time-consuming and costly process, according to Harris County Criminal Court Judge Raul Rodriguez. .

“Often many don’t know how to do it, so they hire a lawyer to do it, and so there are costs. So this particular program allows those people to be able to seal their records without having to hire a lawyer,” Rodriguez said.

For Chantol Prophet, a 32-year-old special education teacher, it was the associated costs that kept her from sealing the crime on her file – an incident that happened around eight years ago when her first son was born.

“It just started to get really expensive. Especially with two kids,” she said, which is why she’s grateful Harris County offers this service for free or at a reduced rate.

Chantol said if it could be removed from her file, it would be a burden on applying for jobs and finding accommodation.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of people are likely eligible to have their criminal records sealed, according to a rough estimate from the Harris County Courts Management Office.

Sealing records are available for individuals with completed deferred disposition for minor non-violent offences.

Under the Fresh Start program, “sealing your case” means eligible people can get restraining orders, which means their criminal charge is not required for public disclosures, like apartment applications. or employment. However, criminal justice agencies are still able to see the charges.

The program was created as an extension of the Bayou City Community Court restorative justice initiative and aims to bridge the gap between the community and the criminal justice system, according to Harris County Criminal Court Judge Toria Finch.

“We believe that if we give people resources, we give them opportunities, we give people purpose, that also fights crime. And so a lot of people can’t find jobs, a lot of people can’t move forward in their lives because of a mistake that maybe happened years ago,” she said. .

Finch also added that once community members sign up for the Fresh Start program, at rotating county locations, the overall record-sealing process takes about four to eight weeks.

Another Fresh Start event is planned before the end of the year, but Harris County courts have yet to finalize details.

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