The records of juvenile offenders are not nearly as confidential as they should be, and the records are also not easily sealed or expunged, a report shows.
The first such report, issued Thursday in the form of a report card by the Juvenile Law Center, shows that many states fail to protect the records to begin with. Other states fail to seal or expunge the records later. Some states do both.
No states received the highest rating of five stars. New Mexico scored highest in protecting the records and reputations of youthful offenders; Idaho scored lowest.
The consequences are serious, according to the center, which conducted the nearly 18-month study with funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Youthful offenders are being denied college admission, military service and jobs because of the too-free sharing of information about crimes they committed as children or teenagers.
“There is a misperception that juvenile records are confidential and automatically destroyed when a youth is no longer under court supervision,” said Riya Saha Shah, an attorney at the Juvenile Law Center and architect of the study.
In reality, the records are accessible to a wide range of people, institutions and even companies that buy such information to sell to other companies for job-screening purposes. Retaining the records for years after a young person has moved beyond the incident — and then allowing others access to the records — creates employment, educational and other social barriers that a young person may never be able to overcome.
“Permanent open records are like a ball and chain that prevent young people from becoming productive adults,” Shah said.
Often, a person is a young adult before learning that his or her juvenile offense is still on record. A potential employer may do a criminal background check and see the offense listed. Even though there may be a “J” next to the offense to indicate the offense happened when the person was a juvenile, “employers basically don’t care” whether the offense occurred when someone was young, Shah said. Just seeing the record often results in a person not being offered a job, she said.
The study, released Thursday as a scorecard of all 50 states and Washington, D.C., looked at states’performance records in two key areas: confidentiality during and after juvenile proceedings and the ease of sealing or expungement afterward. The report found a high degree of variability in how and when states expunge records, Shah said.
“Some make you wait until you’re 18, others until you’re 21, and some for five years" from the time of the offense, Shah explained. “But the kids don’t know this until something happens, like not being hired.”
Several studies in recent years have shown that the youthful brain, particularly in adolescence, is undergoing major changes. Teens may actually have too much connective tissue in the brain, which interferes with crucial connections in the prefrontal cortex, according to studies at the University of North Carolina and other major research institutions. The prefrontal cortex governs critical thinking skills and assesses risk and reward.
The aim of those who work with youthful offenders is to steer them toward better choices and better outcomes. Most juvenile offenders do outgrow their mistakes and become valuable, productive members of society, Shah said.
The scorecard provides a clear picture of impediments that state laws and practices place in the paths of those who want to leave the past behind.
The Juvenile Law Center has 10 recommendations for states to prevent a juvenile record from following a juvenile offender into adulthood:
- Records should not be widely available online.
- Records should be sealed to the public before they are expunged.
- Records should be automatically sealed and expunged.
- Expungement should include physical destruction and electronic deletion.
- Expungement eligibility should begin once a case is closed.
- All offenses should be eligible for expungement.
- One entity should be designated to inform youth about the expungement.
- Forms for expungement should be youth-friendly.
- Filing for expungement should be free.
- There should be sanctions for failure to comply.
In addition, the Juvenile Law Center calls for policymakers to review juvenile record laws and protections and for state and city governments to enact provisions to limit barriers to housing, education and employment for youthful offenders.
To see the full report and map of states and their scores, visit www.jlc.org/juvenilerecords.
See sidebar, "Woman's Youthful Offense Wrecks Dream of Being a Nurse" here.