New website helps people seal their criminal record in Harris County

In Texas, every criminal conviction has collateral consequences. For example, if you’re convicted of a felony, you lose your right to vote during incarceration, probation, or parole.

Texas has over 1,400 collateral consequences. You can explore them for yourself at the National Inventory of Collateral Consequences of Conviction database.

But these consequences aren’t just for felonies. Even people convicted of a misdemeanor face hundreds of additional restrictions that never expire. These restrictions limit the ability to go to school, get a job, and participate in public life.

Luckily, people with eligible cases can petition the court for an order of nondisclosure. This effectively seals their record by prohibiting courts and police departments from disclosing the criminal history. It also means that the person does not have to disclose their history, either.

Based on algorithms we developed with Beacon Law and data provided by the Harris County District Clerk, we have determined that there are over 400,000 people in Harris County who are eligible to seal their criminal record through an order of nondisclosure.

What’s the difference between expunging your record and sealing your record?

Obtaining an order of nondisclosure is not the same as expunging your record.

Expunged records are permanently removed from a person’s criminal history. But cases are only eligible for expunction if the case does not result in a conviction (or it’s a Class C misdemeanor with deferred adjudication).

On the other hand, sealing your record through an order of nondisclosure has much broader, yet often more complex, eligibility requirements. Under certain conditions, a person can seal their record even if they are convicted of an offense. Similarly, cases involving deferred adjudication, community supervision, and even confinement all have paths to nondisclosure. There are a variety of ways to be eligible for nondisclosure, but there are also controls to ensure that not every case is eligible.

There are ten different types of nondisclosure orders, each with different eligibility requirements. Once a person determines their eligibility, the process for sealing a record involves filling out a form, paying a filing fee, and attending a hearing.

Determining eligibility is the first barrier for obtaining an order of nondisclosure. Using data and technology, we wanted to make it a little easier.

Check whether you’re eligible to seal your record in Harris County

With ClearYourRecordHarrisCounty.org, anyone can look up their cases by entering their name and date of birth. The website will present them with their full criminal history in Harris County, and show which cases are eligible for nondisclosure. The site takes them through the steps of sealing their record, and they can even apply for a filing fee waiver.

image of website to seal your record in harris county
Check if you are eligible to seal your criminal record at https://clearyourrecordharriscounty.org

Beacon Law, the legal arm of The Beacon, provides civil legal aid to Houston’s homeless population. We began sketching out this project with them just before the pandemic began.

Using criminal court data from the Harris County District Clerk, we developed a series of matching algorithms to determine if a case was eligible for an order of nondisclosure. Then we built a web application to help people look up their eligibility, and fill out the paperwork for getting their record sealed.

Fantastic collaborators

This project is the work of Beacon Law in partnership with Texas Legal Services Center and made possible by the Texas Access to Justice Foundation. The messaging and design was created by The Black Sheep Agency. We also received guidance from staff at the Harris County Public Defender’s Office, and inspiration from Clean Slate Texas.

As this phase of the project closes, I asked our team to reflect on the work:

Kelsey: When we were designing this tool, we had the privilege of meeting with the women of Brigid’s Hope for user feedback sessions. Brigid’s Hope is a program that provides services to women who are justice involved and have experienced homelessness. During these sessions, we got a lot of valuable feedback, and a lot of positive reactions, but what struck me the most was how often we heard “I wish they had this in every county.” It reminded me how powerful tools like this can be for the people we build them for.

Emi: Working on this project opened my eyes to the many barriers present in Texas’ record sealing process. Self-representing individuals must navigate lengthy legal documentation, file their petitions through complex online systems, and schedule a hearing. I hope this site can simplify this process and help folks better understand their eligibility opportunities.

Brian: I’ve been working on this project for over a year. This is a tough, complex project that would not have been possible without the guidance of our partners at The Beacon. To me, this is the promise of data – to extend resources and help us humans make faster, easier, and more confident decisions. For the more than 400,000 people in Harris County with cases eligible for nondisclosure, I hope that this project is a step closer to equal access to justice.

Jeff: I remember volunteering with Kelsey at the Make it Right! event in 2019, and seeing a line of people wrapping around the George R. Brown convention center. They were there all morning, waiting to see if they could clear their records. There are hundreds of thousands of our neighbors who could benefit from this website. It makes me feel like it’s the best possible use of our skills.

Jeff Reichman

Jeff is passionate about data. He founded January Advisors and Sketch City, and serves on the board of the League of Women Voters of Houston. Read his full bio on LinkedIn.