OP-ED: Juvenile Justice — One Strike and You’re Out!

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Riya Saha Shah

No adult is the same person he was when he was a teenager. In my mid-30s, I am thankful I am not the impulsive maker of bad decisions I was at 15. We all deserve the opportunity to learn from our mistakes and grow up.

But for many children who become involved with the court system, the poor decisions they made as teenagers can follow them forever and become an obstacle to future opportunities and success.

One of the core principles of the juvenile justice system is rehabilitation; we want to get troubled youth back on track so they can become productive, responsible, taxpaying members of the community. Youth are provided treatment and supervision to ensure that when they exit the system they are prepared to be good citizens.

Unfortunately, juvenile records contain a lot of highly sensitive information, including information about the child’s family, education, social history, behavioral problems and mental health issues. That’s information necessary to ensure that the youth receive targeted treatment and rehabilitative services, but that could be very damaging if made available to the public.

How these records are handled both while the youth is involved with the court and after they’ve become adults can impair educational opportunities, careers and personal lives in ways that are counterproductive to the system’s goals. Maintaining juvenile court records does very little to advance public safety while narrowing the path to success that the juvenile justice system was designed to provide.

A few examples:

  • In Florida, Dina’s juvenile record prohibits her from chaperoning her child’s field trips and becoming a licensed nurse, even though she is a married college graduate and mother of two — and has never had another brush with the law.
  • In Pennsylvania, Lisa’s juvenile record caused her application to the Peace Corps to be delayed 16 months after she graduated from college.
  • In Washington, Starcia was denied housing because her juvenile record showed up on a landlord’s background check.
  • Actor Mark Wahlberg’s record of an offense committed when he was a juvenile limits his ability to volunteer to work with law enforcement to help troubled youth or obtain a concessionaire’s license.

It is a myth that juvenile records are confidential and automatically destroyed when the teen becomes an adult. In actuality, juvenile records have the potential to impose barriers to success long after youth leave the court system and are well into their adulthood. But laws vary from state to state on how to protect children from the devastating effect of their records:

New York is one of 10 states that completely protect juvenile record information from access by anyone, including access by individuals connected with law enforcement and the court.

Arizona juvenile record information is publicly available and provides no confidentiality protections.

New Mexico laws provide for automatic, immediate sealing of juvenile records when a case is closed.

In Hawaii, only arrest records can be expunged if the child was not adjudicated delinquent. All other records remain permanently available.

These wide variations in states’ sealing and expungement policies mean a youth’s ability to overcome his past and pursue education or employment opportunities may depend on where he lives. But geography must not mute justice.

The Juvenile Law Center recently released the first-ever comprehensive evaluation of juvenile records laws in the United States, “Failed Policies; Forfeited Futures: A Nationwide Scorecard on Juvenile Records.” We looked at the laws and policies in every state and Washington, D.C., and measured them against our core principles for protecting juvenile records. Specifically, we looked at the laws related to the confidentiality of juvenile records while children are still involved in the court process, and how states handle those records once cases are closed. We also looked at the laws that permit kids to get their records sealed to the public or completely destroyed or expunged after their cases have ended.

As a whole, instead of getting children on the right path, our nation is setting children up to fail. According to our scorecard, not one state protects juvenile records well enough to earn five stars. Less than 16 percent of the states earned four stars; the majority of states earned three stars, and about 25 percent of states earned two stars.

Many states allow juvenile records to be completely open to the public, and some states even go so far as to sell this information to for-profit companies. Even in states where records are purportedly unavailable to the public, there are so many exceptions to the rules of confidentiality that sealing or expunging a record could be rendered meaningless.

Youth do not understand that they have the right to expunge or seal their records because laws do not require that they receive such notice. Even if they are made aware, in many states the process for actually filing a petition to get a record expunged is difficult to navigate without an attorney and can be very costly.

This scorecard demonstrates how important record protection is to protecting the future of our children. We know children make mistakes. State legislators need to act now so children and teens with juvenile records can get the second chance they deserve, move past their mistakes and live and work productively in their communities.

Riya Shah is a staff attorney at the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia and a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

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