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For Juvenile Records, It's 'Justice by Geography'

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.

Should a young woman in Indiana who was arrested when she was 12 years old for getting in a fight with another girl at her elementary school be denied Section 8 housing as an adult? Should a 68-year-old man in Arizona be turned down for a security job because of crimes he committed when he was a teenager?

Camille Taylor, an attorney at the Legal Assistance Foundation in Chicago, works on behalf of young people who want to expunge their juvenile records, so she should be accustomed to these cases she mentioned, and others like them. But even she is still sometimes surprised. Taylor spoke with reporters last week on a conference call hosted by the Juvenile Law Center about a new study the organization has released, which rates states on how well they protect, and then expunge, juvenile criminal records.

It’s a common misperception that, because of their sensitive nature, juvenile records are kept confidential, and are destroyed when the offenders turn 18. In reality, this is rarely the case. The processes and policies regarding juvenile records vary widely from state to state, but in many places, the mistakes people made as children or teens can follow them, and put up obstacles in their lives, far into adulthood. (This, despite the fact that 95 percent of young people in the juvenile system enter it for non-violent crimes.)

“Getting into college, getting a scholarship can be difficult with a juvenile record,” Taylor said. Besides school, housing and employment are the other two common problem areas for people with juvenile records, she said. Information can often easily be bought and re-sold by for-profit data brokers. Even in the states where people can request that their records be sealed from public view or permanently expunged, there are other barriers to the process, like court filing fees, the hardship of taking a day off of work to come in person to court, and discouragingly confusing legal statutes.

Sometimes people don’t even know they have criminal records that need expunging—for instance, if they were fingerprinted after an altercation at school, but didn’t ever ride in a squad car or get a mugshot, they might not realize that they had actually been arrested. As a result of all these complications, Taylor said, “people are falling through the cracks.”

For their new study, the Juvenile Law Center evaluated all 50 states and Washington, D.C., in two areas: how well courts there keep records confidential while their owners are involved in the juvenile system, and then how easy or difficult it is for them to expunge those records after they become adults. For instance, Illinois, where Camille Taylor works, landed in the middle range, with three stars out of five. It earned low marks for its exceptions to confidentiality rules, but was also praised for its comprehensive policy for notifying young people of their rights with regard to their records.

The highest scoring state was New Mexico, where juvenile records are automatically sealed, and never public information. The lowest was Idaho, which does not have a confidentiality policy of any kind, nor any method for getting records expunged. The report’s authors saw room for improvement in every state; notably, not one state earned five out of five stars.

Because of the wide variation in state policies, a person’s ability to move on from a troubled past depends a lot on where he or she lives. “This is justice by geography,” said Riya Saha Shah, staff attorney at the Juvenile Law Center, “and it’s just not justice.”

She also explained that juvenile records aren’t limited to just the name of the offender and the crimes he or she has committed. Part of what makes the files so sensitive is the fact that they include information about the offenders’ families, and their educational, medical, and mental health backgrounds, too. “This information is all necessary for the court to ensure that the youth is receiving targeted treatment and rehabilitative services,” she said. “However, maintaining these records really does very little to advance public safety, and it impedes the youth’s ability to grow and mature into adulthood.”

The developmental differences between children, teenagers, and adults bolster the argument for different law enforcement and interrogation tactics, different incarceration facilities, and different record-retention policies, based on an offender’s age. This is also a rapidly developing area of psychological and biological research. One team of legal scholars, neuroscientists, and a developmental psychologist worked together to map the differences between adolescent and adult brains with regard to impulse control and decision-making under stress—with the aim of using empirical science to recommend justice policy reform. The Juvenile Law Center’s report takes these developmental differences as a given, and places a strong emphasis on what they should mean for a young person’s ability to grow out of reckless behavior.

“Adolescence is a process of maturation and development,” said Judge Jay D. Blitzman, First Justice of the Juvenile Court Department of Massachusetts, during the conference call last week. “Accountability is important, but accountability has got to be looked at in the context of this developmental arc, and allow for the possibility of meaningful sanctions which allow reintegration into society.” He concluded by saying, “If you believe in second chances, you should believe in expungement.”

Also on the call was Sharon Cox (a pseudonym), a medical assistant and married mother of two in Florida. Cox was involved in the juvenile court system when she was very young, and now, years later, she is not allowed to be a chaperone on her son’s school field trips, and has been rejected from nursing programs, because of her criminal record. Her records are still public; anyone equipped with her name and $18 can find out that she was arrested for auto theft when she was 15 years old, and decide that she’s not worth the risk, no matter how many years have passed.

The report ended on the recommendations that policymakers should strengthen juvenile record protections, states should work to remove the barriers to housing and jobs that records might present, and that courts should do a better job of helping young offenders understand the sealing and expungement processes. Every speaker on the call agreed that these changes can help the juvenile justice system do what it’s meant to do: rehabilitate and re-integrate young people who have made mistakes, but have the potential to learn from them and move on.

Even with all of the obstacles she’s had to face, Cox said, she is thankful for having gone through the court system as a teenager. “Without the juvenile justice system, I would not be the rehabilitated adult that I am today,” she said. “Although I’m not the only person going through this, and I’m sure there are many individuals out there who may have resorted back to a life of crime because they’ve seen that these restrictions aren’t something that they can overcome.”

*Update—February 26th, 2019: This post has been updated.