1.5 million children are arrested each year. At some point in each of these children’s lives, the record of their arrest or court involvement will impose barriers to education and employment. At least two-thirds of post-secondary institutions conduct background checks of prospective students. More than 90% of employers conduct background checks. And, many licensed occupations and professions require FBI background checks. Yet, the reality is, these background checks are often incomplete or inaccurate and they are always stigmatizing.
The justice system has long recognized that children are different from adults, and historically the public had little or no access to the records of juvenile adjudications. That is no longer the case. The effect of juvenile records now punish kids well into adulthood.
Juvenile Law Center’s recent policy paper, Future Interrupted, urges that children must be free to grow up unfettered by their childhood mistakes—to have their court involvement remain in the past so they can move forward with their lives. This paper explores how various background check systems disseminate juvenile record information, using real-life stories from youth to illustrate the devastating effects of record retention and dissemination.
This month the Juvenile Law Center released an impressive pair of reports evaluating national policy on public access to juvenile criminal records. The first report, Juvenile Records: A National Review of State Laws on Confidentiality, Sealing and Expungement, provides a national overview of state laws, and proposes standards to mitigate exposure to collateral consequences as a result of a juvenile record. The report also makes recommendations for policy-makers, courts, defense attorneys, and youth-serving agencies. Supplementing the national overview are fact sheets on the law in each state, including the availability and effect of expungement or sealing, and an overview of the process for obtaining such relief. (These fact sheets can be found by clicking on the relevant state on the map here).
A second complementary report, Failed Policies, Forfeited Futures: A Nationwide Scorecard on Juvenile Records, scores each state on the degree to which it meets the Center’s ideal standards for juvenile record protection. The Center based its evaluation of the states on its “core principles for record protection” including:
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.