Juvenile record sealing is an integral part of the juvenile justice system’s focus on rehabilitation. Having a juvenile record can limit a young person’s ability to apply for a job, college and various state licenses, including the license for adoption. However, due to the lack of information and the confusing sealing processes currently in place in California, many young people do not even realize they need to seal their juvenile records — and even if they do, the process presents significant obstacles.
The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ) conducted a survey of record-sealing practices in California and found the process is not adequately accessible to young people. Out of the state’s 58 counties, only 18 have online application forms to seal juvenile records, and only 20 counties have step-by-step descriptions of the process. Seal It, a new project by CJCJ with support from the Zellerbach Family Foundation, aims to ease this process by offering a central location where people can learn how to seal their juvenile records in any California county and, whenever possible, seal their records online.
However, getting the information is only the first step. An even more regressive practice is charging hefty fees to seal juvenile records. Given the links between financial hardship and juvenile delinquency, fees become an extra barrier in young people’s rehabilitation efforts. Currently, 29 counties charge processing fees of $120 to $150, while only 22 counties (not necessarily the counties charging high fees) offer a fee waiver process. Only 16 counties do not charge fees.
While existing legislation allows low-income people to waive court fees, the same institutions are not in place for other county costs. Without waiver processes, current law states that applicants, or their parents, are responsible for full fee amounts up to $150.
Another systemic problem with the current juvenile records sealing process is the lack of deadline for criminal justice agencies. Only five counties require agencies to contact the court within designated time frames to confirm compliance with the order. Applicants may then contact the court after the deadline to confirm the agencies have complied.
The remaining 53 counties put the onus of ensuring record sealing on the applicants themselves, either requiring them to contact all record-holding agencies directly, or to do so via probation officers.
Without a deadline by which these agencies must comply with the court’s order, counties are allowing police departments and other such agencies an infinite time frame to seal juvenile records. Meanwhile, young people are being blocked from employment, education and state licenses necessary to their rehabilitation and ability to move forward with their lives. To truly attain the goal of rehabilitation originally intended by juvenile record sealing, legislative improvements must be made to create consistency and clarity throughout the process.
This year saw significant improvements to this process. As of Jan. 1, 2015, all courts and probation departments will be required to provide youth with information on record sealing, and juvenile courts will be required to automatically seal records of eligible court adjudications if the youths satisfactorily complete the terms of their probation. The latter move is a monumental step in the right direction — but only applies to adjudications that occur after Jan. 1, 2015 and does not apply to other records, including arrests.
While the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice has created Seal It to address the lack of accessible information surrounding the juvenile record sealing process, it is not a complete solution. California must make the sealing of all records automatic and retroactive to truly achieve the original intent of the juvenile court.
Erica Webster is a member of the policy team at the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco.