The juvenile justice system in the United States was first conceived 115 years ago as an alternative to the adult criminal justice system, one that emphasized rehabilitative support over punitive discipline. Privacy for young people involved in the system was prioritized. That meant limited access to juvenile records, and options for youth to embark on adulthood without being held back by acts they committed as children. The original goal was to protect children from being branded as criminals and importantly, juvenile adjudication has been considered as distinct from a criminal conviction.
In 2014, the landscape varies greatly across the country, but by and large, states have moved away from those founding ideals. A new report released today by the Juvenile Law Center (PDF) offers the first nationwide evaluation of its kind of how states handle juvenile records. The Juvenile Law Center, a Philadelphia-based public interest law firm which advocates for young people in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems, found that many states not only provide members of the public—including employers, media, schools, and government agencies—access to juvenile records, some states also even force youth to proactively inquire as to whether or not they may expunge their records.
While most states protect confidentiality and access to juvenile records while proceedings are ongoing, once a juvenile is adjudicated as delinquent—the juvenile justice equivalent to being found guilty of an offense—access broadens. In Arizona, for example, report authors wrote, “all juvenile records are public unless a court order is issued to protect a particular record.” Just nine states—California, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, and Rhode Island—shield juvenile records from public access.
When it comes to sealing, which broadly refers to who beyond youth courts have access to juvenile records, and expungement, which refers to the destruction of records, policies and practices also vary widely.
“There is a misperception that juvenile records are confidential and automatically destroyed when a youth is no longer under court supervision. The reality is that juvenile records are widely accessible long after a young person has become an adult,” Juvenile Law Center attorney and report author Riya Saha Shah said in a statement. Not only that, argues the Juvenile Law Center, but limiting young people’s options to put their pasts behind them doesn’t improve public safety and only makes it harder for young people to move on to productive adult futures.