In 2015, California came three steps closer to realizing the founding concepts of the juvenile justice system and securing successful re-entry for justice-involved youth.
In July, a California appellate court ordered certain juvenile felonies to be retroactively reclassified as misdemeanors, making more youth eligible to have their records sealed and police DNA files destroyed. Then in October, Gov. Jerry Brown signed two bills to assist eligible youth in sealing their juvenile records, making the process automatic and free for anyone under age 26.
While some major groups opposed these reforms — the California District Attorneys Association, for example — they reflect a paradigm shift in California toward positive juvenile justice reforms that focus on rehabilitation rather than lifelong retribution.
Before California passed Assembly Bill (AB) 666 and Senate Bill (SB) 504, the juvenile record sealing process varied among each of the state’s 58 counties, with unclear deadlines and legal jargon through which youth were expected to navigate themselves. The processes differed so widely that the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, with generous support from The Zellerbach Family Foundation, created Seal It, an online tool providing step-by-step guides for every California county’s record sealing process.
Despite what many people think, in most states juvenile records do not automatically disappear at age 18. Having a juvenile record can create obstacles for someone looking for work or applying for citizenship, among other issues. While most states provide some protection against accessing juvenile records (e.g. California does not classify a juvenile adjudication as a “conviction,” enabling youth to answer “no convictions” on job and college applications), some records may still be viewed by potential employers, landlords, school officials and others.
The ease of access for nonlaw enforcement agencies varies among states as well. According to the Juvenile Law Center, nine states, including California, completely prohibit public access to juvenile records regardless of a youth’s offense, number of offenses or age.
Conversely, seven states make all juvenile records publicly available with minor exceptions, and Kansas makes all juvenile records available for youth 14 and older. The ability to seal juvenile records is an important step to re-entry for formerly justice-involved youth because once a record is sealed, public access is limited. In California, for example, youth may legally say their record never existed, allowing them greater access to employment and education.
The two California bills minimize the collateral consequences of a juvenile record by removing fees and automating the sealing process as soon as youth become eligible, simplifying access to these necessary re-entry goals. While conducting research for Seal It, CJCJ found that only 20 of California’s 58 counties provide step-by-step instructions for record sealing, revealing the opacity of the process.
CJCJ also found that 27 counties charge $100 to $150 in sealing fees, with two counties charging especially high rates of $170 and $185. The high costs of record sealing are particularly problematic for youth under age 18, who are most likely to experience poverty, especially when sealing their juvenile records may be a prerequisite for employment.
These reforms were signed into law soon after California’s 4th Appellate District Court decided that California’s Proposition 47 applies to youth, thereby allowing some of young people’s nonviolent, nonserious felonies, such as minor drug possession and petty theft, to be reclassified as misdemeanors. Over objections from San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, who argued Proposition 47’s language applied only to adults, the court ruled in favor of the 15-year-old appellant on the basis that a youth cannot receive a harsher penalty than an adult for the same offense.
This decision means that youth with newly reclassified sentences may spend less time incarcerated for minor offenses. It also allows youth a greater chance of becoming eligible to seal their juvenile records and less likely to be turned away from jobs, military service, U.S. citizenship or higher education.
This new legislation and the court’s decision regarding Proposition 47 signify positive momentum in California toward juvenile rehabilitation instead of punishment. Certain parties continue to resist reforms that enable justice-involved youth to become independent (as exhibited by the California District Attorneys Association’s opposition to both Proposition 47 and AB 666).
However, by creating an automatic process for eligible youth to seal their juvenile records, California legislators and Gov. Brown acknowledge that the justice system must support youth re-entry through employment and education, thereby mitigating the collateral consequences of justice-involvement.
Erica Webster is a member of the policy team at the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco.
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