Editor's Note: This is Part One of a 2-part series that explores Washington State's policy on sealing (or unsealing) juvenile records, and the long-lasting effects of that policy on the kids who have served their time.
When he was 14 years old, Daniel Bryner did something stupid and criminal and paid his debt to society. Or so he thought.
Bryner, now a soft-spoken, baby-faced 22-year-old with a wisp of beard, served three months in juvenile detention at the state’s Echo Glen School, an experience he, like many other young offenders, says turned him around. Upon release he went to live for a while in the Philippines, his mother's homeland. When he returned he got his high school GED and tried to get a job. No luck: Employers saw his criminal record and brushed him aside.
Bryner had run into a problem that bedevils most young offenders, and many state officials too. Despite three years of legislative efforts to seal juvenile arrest and conviction records (with a fourth try on deck in the current session), Washington remains one in a minority of states that releases juvenile records to the public. It has until recently been one of only three that sell these records in bulk to credit bureaus, data brokers, landlords, employers, colleges and other enterprises which use or market background checks.
The effects of this policy go far beyond unemployment. Colleges and scholarship-granting agencies routinely do background checks and disqualify applicants for criminal histories. Absent more authoritative data, the most comprehensive examination yet on the impacts of Washington’s release of juvenile records appears to be a master’s thesis by UW grad student Tony Calero, which found that only one of the state’s public universities, Central Washington, “appears to refrain from collecting this information.” Jim Theofelis, the director of the Mockingbird Society for homeless youth and former mental health director at King County Youth Detention, recalls the case of a teen who'd received a college scholarship. The school checked, discovered she'd been charged in a family domestic dispute, and withdrew the scholarship.
“Finding housing was worse than getting a job,” recalls Sue Steinman, whose son, like Daniel Bryner, was haunted by his juvenile record. Steinman teaches middle-school math at Thurston County Juvenile Detention. Her son, she says, managed to land “a couple part-time jobs he got through friends who knew he’d turned his life around, but getting housing was impossible.” Despairing of ever finding a house or a steady job in his home state, Steinman’s son left for Hawai’i, where “nobody cared” about his record. He got good work, but struggled with depression, and died suddenly at Christmastime. She hadn’t seen him in two years.
Landlords' use of juvenile criminal records as a tool for screening is "a huge barrier to eliminating homelessness," says Jim Theofelis, particularly when so many records are the result of "minor infractions at a real early age." The prevailing rule in domestic violence calls — that police will arrest someone — feeds that data stream. When Theofelis worked at King County Juvenile Detetention, "it was a classic pattern. Kids would come in after what were really squabbles with parents, with felony charges — even though most of the time the parents looked much better [after the brawl] than the kids."
"It’s not just private landlords," says Terry Pottmeyer, CEO of Kirkland-based Friends of Youth, which houses Eastside homeless adolescents. "Even some groups serving the homeless screen out those with juvenile records." Her agency among them. "We do inquire," admits Pottmeyer. "We have to guard the safety of our residents. We try to set the barrier as low as possible. The challenge is, you wouldn’t even know what's in the record of someone coming from Texas or California or Wisconsin," or the other states that seal juvenile records. Washington law puts the Washington-bred at a disadvantage compared to those who immigrate from other states.
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