As soon as a juvenile comes into contact with law enforcement, a criminal record is opened on them, and this record will contain every single document that is created by the police department, court, district attorney and probation department in relation to the juvenile’s criminal activity. A common misconception about juvenile records is the belief that, once a juvenile turns 18, the record disappears; this, however, is often not the case, and a juvenile criminal record can create serious obstacles in adulthood. A juvenile record can prevent a young person from receiving financial aid to assist with college tuition, harm their ability to get a job or join the military, and impede licensure eligibility for certain professions. It can also affect eligibility for public housing, not only for the juvenile, but also for the family they are residing with. In recent years, some states have added laws to try and keep juvenile records from haunting adults, but not all states have such safeguards in place.
Sealing vs. Expunging Records
Sealing and expunging are two distinctly different options in the legal world, though states often only allow one or the other. Having court records sealed refers to closing the records to the public, but still leaving them accessible to a limited number of court or law enforcement personnel that are connected to a juvenile’s case. In many states, this means that once a juvenile record is sealed, no information contained in that record may be disclosed to any private citizen or company, including potential employers, licensing agencies, landlords or educational institutions. The record does remain accessible to law enforcement officers, prosecutors and sentencing judges, in instances in which they are investigating or prosecuting a future crime in which the youth is accused of being involved. Expungement, on the other hand, involves treating the criminal record as though it never existed. An expunged juvenile record is physically and digitally destroyed. All documents in relation to the juvenile’s arrest, detention, sentencing, and probation must be permanently deleted from the archives of the court, law enforcement, and any other person or agency that provided services to a child under a court order.
All states have some sort of legal process an adult can go through to have their juvenile records sealed or expunged, but it is often complicated, and requires the person to be able to hire a lawyer, which isn’t always a feasible option for people who are living on a limited income. Frequently, a young person is never even notified if, when, or how they can have their record expunged. And in some states, the sealing or expungement process can only be initiated at the direction of the prosecutor or judge.
In recent years, many state legislatures have been trying to make it easier for young people by automatically sealing or expunging all juvenile records. This means that records are sealed or expunged without any action required on the part of the juvenile. Currently, there are 15 states which already have laws in place that automatically seal or expunge juvenile records under certain circumstances — Alaska, Arkansas, California, Florida, Illinois, Montana, Maryland, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. Within each state, the law varies widely regarding whether records are automatically sealed or expunged, and when the process occurs. In Montana, juvenile court records are sealed, and youth probation records are destroyed when the juvenile turns 18. In Alaska, court records of some of the juvenile proceedings are automatically sealed within 30 days of an offender’s 18th birthday, but law enforcement records—like arrest records and warrants—remain public. New Mexico law, on the other hand, requires that all of a juvenile’s criminal record be automatically sealed when the case is discharged.
In 2015, Illinois passed legislation to address the issue of juvenile criminal records. The new law requires Illinois State Police to automatically expunge law enforcement records once offenders reach age 18, as long as the crime that was committed was a low-level offense, and the juvenile has not been rearrested within the last six months.
Several other states, including Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Tennessee, considered passing legislation in 2016 that would have automatically sealed or expunged juvenile records. None of the measures passed. That same year, Florida considered altering their current law, which requires juveniles classified as serious offenders to have their records automatically destroyed when the juvenile turns 26 years old; juveniles not classified as serious offenders have their criminal history record expunged when they turn 24. A ballot to get rid of the age requirements, and to instead automatically destroy records after the juvenile completes his or her sentence, was ultimately unable to make it through state legislation.
The issue of juvenile criminal records is one that the Juvenile Law Center has kept a close eye on, publishing a report in 2014 on the status of sealing or expunging juvenile records across the U.S. It’s an issue, the report’s authors assert, that is growing in importance, as some states have stopped limiting or prohibiting access to juvenile criminal records. “Retaining juvenile records too often undermines important societal goals,” says the report, “by preventing young people from successfully reintegrating into their communities.” It is a system that is set up to “punish youth indefinitely” for crimes that they have already fulfilled sentences for—and that is a major problem for young adults simply trying to better themselves by becoming successful members of society.
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