Justice-involved youth across the nation may experience extended harmful effects from punitive policies regarding their juvenile records, whether they are likely to reoffend or not. However, youth in California may soon have access to the opportunities afforded by a clean slate. Legislation proposed by state Sen. Mark Leno would allow the automatic sealing of juvenile records for young people deemed reformed, as judged by their successful completion of statutory and probationary requirements. The bill only applies to offenses already sealable under current law and excludes felonies committed when aged 14 or older.
This bill reflects the wealth of relevant research into immaturity resulting from the partially developed adolescent brain, and the impact of education on recidivism. Brain development may conclude as late as aged 25, with changes in neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, influencing many aspects of cognitive functioning; including memory, concentration and risk-seeking behavior. Research demonstrates that juvenile offenses may have been committed without the prerequisite brain development to make responsible and mature decisions. The American Bar Association appropriately acknowledges that minors are therefore “less than adult,” which lessens their culpability. Acknowledging reduced culpability and the need for support, is congruous with the legislative philosophy underpinning the juvenile justice system, which is to provide protection and rehabilitation, in the best interests of youth and wider society.
Research has found that an individual becomes dramatically less likely to reoffend as time increases since their last offense. After seven years, the risk of recidivism nears the risk for new offenses among persons with no criminal record. It is well recognized that employment reduces recidivism, promotes economic stability and creates a stronger community. Employment prospects for formerly incarcerated individuals can be limited due to extensive background checks and diminished work skills during incarceration. However, California’s amended Labor Code now offers justice-involved individuals a fairer chance at obtaining meaningful employment. Employers are now prohibited from asking job applicants about expunged, sealed or dismissed records. Furthermore, Gov. Jerry Brown has recently signed legislation that will require most employers to withhold enquiries pertaining to criminal records until after determining that job applicants meet minimum qualification requirements. This legislation, informally termed Ban the Box, commences on July 1, 2014.
Education is an important pathway to reducing crime through workplace success. California’s current legislative proposals would support this route to good citizenship. A national study conducted by the Center for Community Alternatives established that there are inequitable college admissions procedures for justice-involved individuals, in terms of the extent and nature of applicant screening, and subsequent admissions decision processes. The report highlights that admissions staff may misinterpret a juvenile adjudication for a criminal record, and that campuses without criminal history screening do not report increased safety concerns.
Education demonstrates perseverance, reliability and the ability to learn; all key attributes transferable to work environments. Furthermore, education develops peer relations and respect for others, which are key components of responsible and trustworthy citizenship. Given national differences in addressing youth misconduct and varying college admissions procedures, the automatic sealing of juvenile records would promote fairer educational opportunities. This highlights the pressing need for nationwide admissions consistency. Furthermore, universities could learn from Ban the Box legislation and postpone admissions decisions until after individuals with a criminal history have been assessed on their course suitability. Similarly, the extent to which businesses rely on record checks and utilize subsequent judgment criteria varies extensively, as do the underlying state differences in how justice-involved individuals, particularly youths, are admonished.
While bills improving access to employment are laudable, juvenile records have long been widely disseminated with detrimental effect, and unfortunately not all eligible justice-involved youth will seal their records. California decision makers are seeking to implement legislative relief that would facilitate freedom from stigma. As of January 1, 2015, Californian courts and probation departments will be required to offer information regarding the sealing process and eligibility to do so. Furthermore, it should be noted that legislation before the California Assembly will remove the obligatory fees for those aged under 26. However, current prohibitive factors across the nation may include expensive fees, multi-state complications, and a lack of awareness or understanding of the lengthy process.
Automatically sealing juvenile records would lessen the damage caused by inconsistencies in screening for both employment and education. Routinely sealing records for eligible youth would increase opportunities for jobs and education, which are effective tools for reducing reoffending, while promoting self-reliance and valid contributions to the community. The automatic sealing of juvenile records is a crucial step towards achieving successful reform and safer societies.
Antonia Cartwright is a Post-Graduate Fellow at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ), based in San Francisco. She is experienced in College Lecturing and British Law Enforcement. Cartwright completed her MSc in Criminology and Criminal Psychology and Post-Graduate Certificate in Education, in the U.K. before moving to California.