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The Fresh Start program

I approve of this.

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

“I’m more excited than anything that this too shall pass,” said Sigers, who was among at least 100 people who showed up to a north Houston community center for the opportunity to remove certain non-violent misdemeanors from their criminal records. The event on Saturday morning was the latest resource fair affiliated with the new Fresh Start program with Harris County Courts.

“I’m ashamed of it,” Sigers said about the incident from roughly 30 years ago that’s still on her criminal record, which occurred after she said police misidentified her while pursuing someone else who had been evading police at her sister’s apartment complex.

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

More than two hours before the Harris County Courts Fresh Start event began, people were outside to sign up, indicating significant community interest in the programs offered — records sealing as well as receiving free children’s backpacks, free enhanced library cards, COVID-19 vaccines and immigration consults.

Saturday’s event is the third Fresh Start community outreach event by Harris County Courts for sealing records, which can be a burdensome, costly process, according to Harris County Criminal Court Judge Raul Rodriguez.

“A lot of times, many don’t know how to do it so they hire a lawyer to do it, and so there’s fees there. So, this particular program allows these individuals to be able to seal their records without having to hire a lawyer,” Rodriguez said.

[…]

Hundreds – even thousands – of individuals are likely eligible to seal their criminal record, according to a rough estimate from Harris County Courts Office of Court Management.

Sealing records is available for people with a completed deferred adjudication for low-level, non-violent misdemeanor offenses.

Under the Fresh Start program, “sealing your record” means that qualifying individuals can get orders of non-disclosures, which means their criminal charge isn’t required on public disclosures, like apartment or job applications. However, criminal justice agencies are still able to view the charges.

The program was created as an extension of the restorative justice initiative Bayou City Community Court and is aimed at bridging 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 people opportunity, we give people purpose, that also combats crime. And so a lot of people cannot get jobs, a lot of people cannot move forward with their life because of a mistake that may have happened years ago,” she said.

Details of the Fresh Start program, for which there will be another event before the end of the year, are here. This is a great idea, and should be emulated by other counties. One of the points of the criminal justice system is to get people who have transgressed to go back to being lawful citizens. When they do, they should be able to officially put their past behind them, for if they cannot then what’s the point? Given how cumbersome and time-consuming the process to seal one’s record can be, offering it as an occasional service makes a lot of sense. Kudos to all for doing this.

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