Second-chance program launched by Harris County judges helps eligible misdemeanor offenders seal records

Fresh start program to help seal criminal record

HOUSTON – A program developed by Harris County misdemeanor court judges is giving a second chance to eligible individuals to have their records sealed.

D’Lenya Jones said she’s grateful for the second chance she received three months ago.

“This opportunity gave me a chance to have a fresh start,” said D’Lenya. “My past is my past. I was in active addiction and I made some bad choices.”

The 60-year-old grandmother said a 2018 criminal mischief charge remained on her record although she successfully completed deferred adjudication. It’s a form of probation that allows people to avoid a conviction.

In April, Jones learned about a new restorative justice initiative from a Harris County Criminal Court at Law judge. All 15 judges came together earlier this year to develop Fresh Start.

“We saw a need for individuals to have an opportunity to have their criminal records sealed,” said Judge Tonya Jones of Harris County Criminal Court at Law 15.

Judge Jones said the program is beneficial for those who enroll in the program and for the entire community.

“It helps us to have a safer community by giving people access to resources and help them to complete that transition from having their cases resolved and going back to society so they can be productive citizens,” Judge Jones said.

Harris County Criminal Court at Law 9 Judge Toria Finch came up with the idea, which she said is unique to Texas but not other states. Finch said the program is designed for non-violent misdemeanor offenses to help them remove past blemishes on their record so they can move on with their lives.

“There are so many people that have paid their debt to society,” Finch said. “Unfortunately, they’re not able to get jobs. People can’t get financial aid through federal funding. Housing can be an issue. It can show up in all facets of your life.”

Judge Jones said the program helps the Public Defender’s Office reach more people eligible for criminal record sealing through their resources fair. One way people can participate in Fresh Start is through their pop-up resources fair.

Roughly 120 people attended one of the three fairs and were pre-screened for criminal record sealings. The other way people can participate is by being referred by the Harris County Community Supervision and Corrections Department. Finch said of that number, more than 70 walk-in registrations took place at their resources fair on Aug. 1, where close to 200 backpacks and school supplies were handed out to the community.

So far, Finch said 64 people have successfully participated in Fresh Start from those probation referrals.

D’Lenya said she learned about the second-chance program through her daughter, who happens to be Judge Jones.

“I was invited out by one of the judges, which happens to be my daughter, and I was going to support her,” D’Lenya said. “Once I got there, I saw all of the benefits that they were offering.”

Judge Jones said her mother signing up to participate in the program came as a surprise to her.

“Before I knew it, at the next Fresh Start when I’m looking at the petition of names of individuals who are going to have their non-disclosures signed, I see her name.” Judge Jones said. “I was shocked and surprised but also happy for her because I was aware of her great desire to want to take care of that.”

D’Lenya said once she enrolled in Fresh Start, the process to have her record non-disclosed was smooth and quick.

“I was very, very, very pleased, grateful and humbled,” she added. “It was a humbling experience for me as I said because I’ve made some bad choices.”

For more information about Fresh Start click here, or email news@ccl.hctx.net to sign up for notifications about upcoming Fresh Start fairs.