In our July 2008 post about juvenile court records, we noted that most juvenile court records are confidential. This is done to protect the juvenile, on the theory that juveniles are more prone to bad decisions than adults (i.e., they do “dumb things”), but that they can be rehabilitated. Law enforcement agencies and the court system can see juvenile records, but the general public cannot.
Background checks for the purposes of employment and housing – and sometimes for college admission, financial aid, etc. – are the general public’s main interest in court records. Since most juveniles are not yet in the labor or housing market, the general public doesn’t miss much by not being able to view these records. But what happens when the juvenile turns 18?
That answer varies from state to state, but in most states the juvenile’s record can remain confidential. In some states, juvenile records are automatically sealed when the juvenile reaches the age of 18, although in most states the juvenile must petition the court to have the record sealed. Sealing of records is called expungement or expunction in many jurisdictions, or “setting aside” in some.
Not all juvenile records can be sealed. Serious juvenile offenses, such as those which would be felonies if the juvenile were tried as an adult, cannot be sealed in most states. Many states do not allow sealing of records until the detention or term of probation has been completed, or if the person is convicted of another offense after turning 18.
Once a record is expunged or sealed, it doesn’t simply disappear. It continues to be accessible to law enforcement, the court system, and some licensing authorities – just as it did before the juvenile turned 18. But the general public still cannot see it, and a person with a sealed record can usually answer “no” to the question “Have you been convicted of a crime or a juvenile offense?” on an application for a job, a rental, college admission, etc.
The key word is usually. Because if sealing or expungement is not automatic when the juvenile turns 18, and if the juvenile fails to petition the court, the record does become public. It can then be acquired by commercial background check providers and can no longer be hidden – even if a petition for sealing or expungement is later granted. In states that do not automatically seal juvenile records at age 18, it is extremely important for the juvenile to file a timely petition to seal or expunge. As usual, the process varies from state to state; follow the links to examples from Michigan, Texas, and Ohio’s Cuyahoga County.
This post was suggested by recent news in my home state of Washington, which is poised to join the majority of other states. Washington does have a process for sealing juvenile court records, as can be see here, here, here, and here. But Washington sells its criminal court records to commercial background check providers, and those sales include juvenile records of those who have turned 18. Even worse, those sales of records can take place mere days after the juvenile turns 18, making it extremely difficult for the juvenile to have a petition granted in time to keep the record from being widely distributed on the internet.
That is about to change. House Bill 1651 was just passed by the state legislature, and is awaiting its expected signature by the Governor. The bill provides for automatic sealing of juvenile records – except for serious felonies, sex offenses, and drug offenses – when the juvenile turns 18, is released from detention, or completes probation (whichever comes later). If someone objects, or if the court is aware of a good reason not to seal, the court then holds a hearing to decide whether or not to seal the record. With this act, Washington changes from one of the most draconian states with regard to juvenile records, to one of the most forgiving. One of the major policy arguments for the change was that existing law puts Washington young people at a disadvantage to those from other states who could say “no” on an application and get a job that would be denied to someone from Washington with a similar juvenile offense.
How does your state handle the confidentiality of juvenile records? Check CourtReference; just select your state, then select the “Self Help and Legal Research” court resource category, and look for links that discuss the sealing or expungement of juvenile records.