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Juvenile offenders get help cleaning slate

Even those whose familiarity with the justice system extends no deeper than repeated “Law and Order” viewings know that a juvenile conviction is expunged from the offender’s record as soon as they reach majority age. The reasoning is obvious — to make sure a youthful mistake doesn’t ruin someone’s entire life.

But there are some things a television drama education leaves out. In the first place, when someone turns 18 it doesn’t automatically clean the slate. It depends on the crime, and on whether the perpetrator completed the punishment.

And it is not automatic. In Kitsap County, like the rest of Washington state, offenders must proactively contact the courts in question to erase the conviction.

With this in mind, Kitsap Legal Services is sponsoring a free workshop to guide rehabilitated juvenile offenders through the process. At the workshop, Silverdale attorney Emily Butcher will provide advice about how to navigate the complex legal structure in order to seal the record.

“These aren’t bad people,” said Kitsap Legal Service Executive Director Olivia Dennis. “They made a mistake when they were young, like stealing a car, and made restitution. But with this on their record, they find it impossible to get a job or rent an apartment.

“People get lost in the system,” she said. “Like any other law enforcement situation, it’s very detail-oriented. It’s very difficult for them to follow through on their own. They need help navigating.”

Anyone who can afford an attorney won’t qualify for help from this office, and Dennis feels that hiring an attorney is the easiest way to get out from under a conviction. But she’s concerned with those who can’t pay the fees, which in Kitsap County top out at about $200 an hour.

The sealing process follows a stringent path. In the first place, those convicted of a Class A or sex offense can never expunge the action. Class B offenders are required to stay crime-free for five years, have no pending charges and pay full restitution.

Misdemeanor offenders must do the same, although they are only required to be crime-free for the previous two years.

After attending the workshop, the legal aid office will help qualified individuals vacate the convictions, walking them through each step to the conclusion.

Davis said the office can only help vacate crimes committed in Kitsap County. The process is similar throughout the state, so the workshop will give someone the tools to vacate a conviction in another county or state.

Davis got the idea to conduct the workshop from a seminar she attended in Seattle, and assigned the office intern, Travis Peterson, to organize the event.

The office has only two full-time employees, Davis and an office manager, with legal labor donated by lawyers on a pro bono basis.

The office has an annual operating budget of less than $100,000. Funds come from a silent auction every January, donations from sources like the United Way, and interest income generated by lawyer retainers.

This introduces a sense of instability to the operation.

“If the interest rates fall, then we get less money than we expected,” Davis said. “This makes it very hard to budget.”

Davis makes regular use of 133 of approximately 600 lawyers in the county. She screens each case and refers it to an appropriate attorney.

Davis, who said her office received the equivalent of $300,000 in attorney services during 2004, has her own definitions of pro bono.

“It’s a unique situation,” she said. “A plumber is under no obligation to give you free services. But a lawyer has an ethical obligation to do so. And they need to start out with the knowledge they’re providing a free service and work as hard as they would if they were getting a full fee. Starting out with a paying client who doesn’t pay doesn’t qualify as pro bono.”

Nevertheless, she said many Kitsap attorneys who live on Bainbridge Island may volunteer for a Seattle cause.

Davis said many local judges worked as pro bono resources before ascending to the bench.

The workshop takes place at 6 p.m. on June 22 at Kitsap Legal Services headquarters at 920 Park Ave., in Bremerton.

Potential participants should call (360) 479-6125 between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. to determine their eligibility.

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