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    To seal or not to seal: WA's battle over juvenile records

    The state's policy of not sealing - and then selling - juvenile criminal records sentences young offenders to a lifetime of punishment.
    To seal or not to seal (juvenile records)? The future of many WA kids hangs on the answer.

    To seal or not to seal (juvenile records)? The future of many WA kids hangs on the answer. .v1ctor Casale_Flickr

    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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    Posted Mon, Jan 27, 9:18 a.m. Inappropriate

    This article perfectly demonstrates classic Crosscut window-dressing journalism.

    Look through the window, form an opinion or belief, make a decision.

    Casually mention the opposition, paint them dark, leave details scant.

    Build up the side you are supporting with selected facts, figures and emotionalism.

    This article cheapens a very real problem for former offenders but in particular, their victims.


    Posted Mon, Jan 27, 9:45 a.m. Inappropriate

    Current best practices science points to the imperfection of juvenile culpability based on brain development. Even the Supreme Court, in Roper v Simmons 2005, determined that juveniles should never receive the death penalty, based on this important brain research.

    Courts are now arguing whether a juvenile can be civilly committed.

    Misuse of juvenile records will continue to occur unless it is zealously challenged. Good work, Eric Scigliano and Crosscut, for shining a bright light on this latest miscarriage of justice.


    Posted Mon, Jan 27, 11:43 a.m. Inappropriate

    An open and transparent judicial system is not about lifelong punishment; it is about having a system that treats everyone equally and is accountable to the people.

    Article 1 Section 10 of the Washington State Constitution requires that "Justice in all cases shall be administered openly". This helps ensure that those in the system are treated fairly and without discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, gender, religion, sexual orientation, economic status, or political connections. Without open courts, it would be very difficult to detect patterns of discrimination by examining a broad range of cases.

    Automatic sealing of juvenile court records would throw a blanket over the entire system, allowing it to operate substantially in secret. That would be bad for both the kids in the system and for the general public.

    If the problem is that we as a society believe that some people are being unjustly discriminated against in employment or housing because of juvenile records, then we should address that problem directly. Instead of creating secret courts, we should add to the Law Against Discrimination that it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of juvenile records that are older than a certain number of years. The Human Rights Commission and the Attorney General would then be empowered to address discrimination claims rather than individual young people needing to file lawsuits.

    We could back up the anti-discrimination provision with a prohibition on background check agencies reporting data that is illegal for their customers to consider in making an employment or housing decisions. We do this today with things such as evictions and bankruptcies, so these companies already have mechanisms in place to omit data they're not allowed to report.

    Sealing juvenile court records would not end the discrimination for those who have been in the system previously, because all of their records would continue to be available from background check companies who already have them unless we ban the discrimination and reporting.

    If we want to end the discrimination, let's address the discrimination directly. We should not allow our juvenile justice system to operate in secret in the name of eliminating future discrimination.


    Posted Mon, Jan 27, 4:46 p.m. Inappropriate

    You make a good argument. Erasing history sounds like a bad idea.

    But to add "criminal history" to your forbidden list ".. without discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, gender, religion, sexual orientation, economic status, or political connections." sounds like "Men in Black". You would have property managers tell tenants to be sure their doors are locked at all times? because, you know, there are thieves in the building? or rapists? they are reformed now, it's OK. They've paid their debt and now you will be witness to that. I can see problems with that message.


    Posted Tue, Jan 28, 7:05 a.m. Inappropriate

    How about sealing juvenile records unless they commit a crime as an adult? If they really turn their life around then no one would be the wiser. If they commit more crimes than their juvenile history is open to public scrutiny.


    Posted Mon, Jan 27, 12:56 p.m. Inappropriate

    At root, our society has a real problem mistaking retributive and often vengeful punishment for justice. We cover over this any of a number of ways, as in "think about how the victims must feel," but our other language "lock them up and throw away the key," "get them off the streets," etc. belies an authoritarian streak that cares nothing for results (aka, lower recidivism rates, success in reintegration). We pat each other on the back

    The very simple question is this - when someone comes out of jail, do we care more about their punishment, or more about rehabilitating that person and reintroducing them into society? Given just the sheer incarceration numbers, and our terrible recidivism rates, we're more apt to conclude we should just throw these people into a hole than that we should try to get them back into society in a meaningful, functional way.

    What's the ultimate metric for law enforcement success? The number of people we lock up or the number of people we rehabilitate and don't see back in the system again? The numbers don't lie - in relative terms, we lock up people happily, and could give a $#!@ what happens to them when they leave. Probably just lock them up again.


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