“Second Chances for Teen Offenders”

This New York Times editorial urges states to seal or expunge juvenile records “so that young offenders are not permanently impaired by their youthful transgressions.”  It describes a new study from the Juvenile Law Center that concludes “only a few states have ironclad systems prohibiting employers and members of the public from gaining access to [juvenile] records.”

The first juvenile courts were established more than a century ago on the principle that children deserve special care under the law because they are vulnerable, because their transgressions tend to be nonviolent and because they can be expected, on the whole, to outgrow their youthful misbehavior.

These presumptions are borne out by data showing that 95 percent of young people enter the juvenile justice system for nonviolent crimes like theft or vandalism — behavior they typically leave behind when they move into adulthood. But because some juvenile court records remain open to the public when they should have been sealed or expunged, these young people can be denied jobs, housing and even admission to college.

An eye-opening state-by-state study by the Juvenile Law Center, a public interest law firm in Philadelphia, reveals the scope of the problem. A young person who is arrested acquires a paper or electronic trail that can include educational, medical and mental health data, as well as intimate family information. States allow courts, correction officials and juvenile agencies to use these records to help plan a course of treatment and rehabilitation. But only a few states have ironclad systems prohibiting employers and members of the public from gaining access to these records.

The center rated all 50 states and the District of Columbia based on how well they protect confidentiality. New Mexico is the top-rated state, partly because it limits access to juvenile records to schools and government agencies during court proceedings and because juvenile record information is never accessible to the general public. Ranked near the bottom are Kansas, Michigan, Delaware, Utah, Minnesota and Arizona. Dead last is Idaho, because it has no confidentiality protections for juvenile records and makes very few records eligible to be sealed. The fact that most juvenile offenders never presented a threat to public safety and have no further contact with the law after they become adults argues strongly for sealing or expunging records so that young offenders are not permanently impaired by their youthful transgressions.

Margaret Love

Former U.S. Pardon Attorney Margaret Love represents applicants for executive clemency in her private practice in Washington, D.C.. An author of Collateral Consequences of Criminal Convictions (NACDL/West), she created and maintains the NACDL Restoration of Rights Resource and serves on the enactment committee of the Uniform Collateral Consequences of Conviction Act.

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