WASHINGTON — Juvenile records can often have serious lifelong consequences — and the remedies of expunging or sealing the records are often too costly and too complicated to pursue.
That was the heart of the message that three juvenile defense attorneys delivered at the annual conference of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice recently as they urged juvenile justice workers to seek reforms that would make it easier for young people to squelch delinquent acts from their pasts and move on with their lives.
The push for change begins with recognizing that when a young person is found guilty of a particular offense, that finding may not be as “confidential” as some state laws would suggest, one speaker said.
“There’s this idea that, ‘This is just kiddie court,’ and it’s no big deal, and families and children think about it this way,” said Riya Saha Shah, staff attorney at the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center. “They are given information that records disappear upon discharge from the case, and that it won’t be on your ‘permanent record,’ whatever that means,” she said.
“The truth of the matter is when a juvenile has been adjudicated delinquent, the consequences are quite severe. … we’re still treating them in a lot of ways like little adults.
States often confuse the meaning of sealing and expungement, Shah said.
“Even if statutes said expungement shall occur five years after a juvenile’s case is discharged, and after expungement, only law enforcement has access, that’s not expungement,” Shah said. “That’s sealing, because even law enforcement shouldn’t have access to it.”
The records may be acquired by private companies or even the media. They can hurt young people’s chances of securing education, housing and employment, Shah and her co-panelists said.
“The ... biggest barrier that comes into play is getting employment,” Shah said. “The police collect a lot of information. All of goes into their database. Employers can contact state police or a private database, and get information.
“Even if it appears as ‘juvenile,’ employers may not be able to differentiate between juvenile and adult records, or maybe don’t care because they think a juvenile who commits a crime is the same thing as an adult who commits a crime,” Shah said. “There’s also education consequences.”
The Common Application, an online college application form used by hundreds of universities and colleges, asks specific questions about juvenile adjudications. Financial aid and public housing may not be offered, particularly if a person was found delinquent for a drug offense, she said.
Shah said juvenile adjudications can also make it difficult to get accepted into the military.
Other possible consequences, depending on the offense, include suspension or revocation of a driver’s license, bans from becoming a foster parent or adopting a child, and being precluded from certain jobs that require licensure.
Dafna Gozani, Equal Justice Works Fellow at the Colorado Juvenile
Defender Center, spoke of a 23-year-old client who — along with his girlfriend and newborn child — were denied public housing because he is listed on a sex offender registry for inappropriately touching a girl when he was 13 years old.
Things got worse, she said, when he moved into a hotel and erroneously thought he didn’t have to notify law enforcement.
“You have to register in five days if you move,” Gozani said. ‘Now, he has a failure to register case. He got arrested and lost his job.”
Elise Logemann, staff attorney at the Colorado Juvenile Defender Center, noted how the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, known as SORNA, requires juveniles to register as sex offenders if they were 14 or older at the time of the offense and if the offense involved the use of force, threat, drugging or rendering the victim unconscious.
“One of the major consequences kids face when they’re on the registry is stigma,” Logemann said.
In one study, she said, citing a Human Rights Watch report titled “Raised on the Registry,” 52 percent of youth offenders in sex offender registries experienced violence or threats of violence against themselves or family members that they directly attributed to their registration.
Nearly 85 percent experienced “negative psychological impacts,” and nearly one-fifth attempted suicide, Logemann said.
Even though juvenile registration is not required to be posted on the Internet under SORNA, many states still post the information online, she said.
A massive overhaul of the framework that governs juvenile records and deregistration may be distant, but there are more practical measures that advocates can seek at the state level, the attorneys said.
They suggested seeking smaller fixes, such as better notification schemes for expungement or sealing, and eliminating deregistration fees or requirements that an offender pay restitution in full before seeking an expungement.
Shah recommended making use of a scorecard — such as "Failed Policies, Forfeited Futures" — as a “tool for shaming” states into adopting juvenile record policies more favorable to young offenders.
“Legislators don’t want to be in the bottom of anything,” she said.