JACKSONVILLE – A pro bono program for juvenile offenders who have completed the State Attorney’s Office’s diversion program, which began as a collaboration between Florida Coastal School of Law and the Center for Legal Rights, has blossomed into a new joint effort that links the city, the State Attorney’s Office, Florida Coastal, the Duval County Clerk of Courts, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and Jacksonville Area Legal Aid.
Florida Coastal School of Law professor Michelle Hawthorne said eight of her students provide legal representation under the newly dubbed Seal/Expunge Project for Young Offenders.
“This was something for the kids that really wasn’t being done in Jacksonville,” Hawthorne told the Florida Record.
Hawthorne said her students have already processed 50 or 60 kids in the program that ran in the summer and fall “that wouldn’t have been done otherwise.”
Hawthorne said many juvenile offenders and their families do not realize that once the diversion program is completed, an application still needs to be completed. She said she spoke with the mother of one program participant who attempted to fill out the required documentation herself after attorneys said they would charge her $1,500 to $3,000 for their services. The other program participants were beginning the application process from scratch.
“The kids and the parents were so appreciative,” Hawthorne said. “The feedback’s been very positive.”
In addition, Hawthorne said the program has started a conversation in Jacksonville about the need to reform the juvenile justice system.
Hawthorne said The Jax Journey, which covers the kids’ application fees, makes juvenile justice reform a top priority.
Other than The Jax Journey’s contribution of the application fees, Hawthorne said the program is truly a pro bono effort.
“All of my services are in-kind,” she said.
Also, Hawthorne said the work has really helped the law students who work with the juvenile offenders through the program. Specifically, she said it helps them appreciate that “when you have a law degree, you have to give back to the community.”
Hawthorne said she hopes other attorneys in the Jacksonville area will learn about the program and offer their services in the future.
The larger collaboration was launched on Dec. 7, and is geared toward helping juvenile offenders who have finished the diversion program and are now exploring their educational and employment opportunities, Jacksonville Legal Aid pro bono director Kathy Para said in a piece she wrote about the program for the Jacksonville Daily Record.
Para said the final session of the diversion program activities is when Hawthorne and her students give the diversion program participants information about the process of expunging and/or sealing their juvenile criminal records.
In addition to completing the application required by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the sheriff’s office completes fingerprint cards for the participants at this session.
“The goal of the project is to help eliminate the barrier caused by a criminal record and to encourage these young people to continue on a path to a productive and rewarding future,” Para said in the article.