Juvenile records create major hurdles, says study

By Christopher Zoukis

The United States has no national standard for how juvenile records are dealt with, and no states earned a five-star rating from the Juvenile Law Center, a national public interest law firm that ensures child welfare.

The center scored each state on factors such as confidentiality of records, availability of sealing of records, and expungement of records, and recommends a variety of standards and criteria to ensure fair treatment of youth.

Juvenile records, and what happens to them, can be a huge issue, as youth who have recently left prison face huge barriers for what can be even minor indiscretions, and these barriers can continue throughout their lives. They affect graduation rates, acceptance into colleges, and finding work, since many job applications and college applications will ask about even juvenile records. Those affected may even be barred from living with family in public housing.

Keeping juvenile records, and in some cases leaving them unsealed – meaning anyone can have access to not only criminal records, but even mental health and personal information – ensures that youth are not given second chances, and may continue to be punished. At-risk and disadvantaged youth become even more at risk, and are much more likely to commit another crime, whereas automatic expungement of records sees a much higher rate of juveniles remaining arrest free, and more likely to graduate from college.

But in states like Massachusetts, even a false accusation of crime, or arrest without a charge can mean records will never be expunged, and misdemeanours like disorderly conduct can disqualify the affected person from public service or becoming an adoptive parent. Idaho received a 1/5 rating on the scorecard.

Riya Saha Shah from the Juvenile Law Center sums up the issue: “Retention of juvenile records does little to improve public safety but creates significant barriers to success for youth who are trying to move beyond the mistakes they made as a kid. Permanent, open records are like a ball and chain that prevents youth from becoming productive adults, reducing opportunities for employment, eroding the tax base and can lead to increased recidivism due to reduced job prospects.” 

Not only should expungement of records be available to all juveniles, it needs to be automatic, as well as straightforward, with Alaska serving as an exemplary model. Expungement that requires a petition by the youth sees no reduction in recidivism, and complicated court proceedings, as well as high costs, can deter many in some states from seeking sealed records or expungement, if they are even aware of their eligibility.

In order to continue to reduce mass incarceration, and give youth offenders – 95%of whom were arrested for non-violent offenses – a second chance, we need to continue to reduce the barriers they face before, during, and after incarceration.

Currently, harsh policies in many states are preventing youth from successfully reintegrating into their communities, and this needs to change. Ensuring confidentiality of records, and then automatic expungement, is one way to ensure that some of these barriers to success are broken down.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com