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Keeping juvenile records confidential: Olympia debates

Once again, Washington lawmakers will take up legislation to seal certain juvenile records. Will the third time be the charm?
A bill to seal certain juvenile records is under debate in Olympia - for the third time.

A bill to seal certain juvenile records is under debate in Olympia - for the third time. yewenyi/Flickr

Editor's Note: This is the second installment in our 2-part series on sealing (or unsealing) juvenile records.

Kim Ambrose, the director of a UW legal clinic for young people dogged by juvenile criminal records, says she sees it again and again: They come in after getting barred or even ejected from housing, jobs, schools, scholarships or professional licenses because background checks have turned up juvenile convictions, sometimes for relatively minor offenses. Her clinic helps these young people apply to get their records sealed — a slow, exacting process.

“What’s really troubling,” says Ambrose, “is that often they don’t even know that they need to do this. They thought their records already were sealed.” So do many other people. "There’s something deeply embedded in our collective psyche that says juvenile criminal information shouldn’t be distributed,” says Ambrose.

For most of the past century, they weren’t. Minors were considered less culpable and more reformable and were spared what is for most offenders the most enduring penalty: the stigma of a criminal record.

Many who see the effects of those records — from ex-offenders and civil rights advocates to some judges and prosecutors — would like to return to that sort of policy. Ironically, the changes that made minors more culpable for their transgressions grew out of a move to protect their civil rights.

Over the years, the response to juvenile crime has swung like a pendulum between punishment meted according to the offense committed and rehabilitation administered according to the offender’s needs. Until the Progressive Movement took root in the early 20th century, punishment prevailed, and even young children were tried as adults. The progressives made rehabilitation the goal, and in 1913 Washington established a separate justice track for juveniles.

In many ways this paternalistic system resembled child protective services more than criminal justice; proceedings were confidential and conducted without legal representation, and varied greatly between jurisdictions. Courts exercised wide discretion over what were then called “juvenile delinquents.” Very often young miscreants were released with an admonishment to their parents, but chronic truants were sometimes locked away with serious offenders.

In 1967 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juveniles accused of crimes were entitled to the same due process as adults — except for trial by jury. However much they talked about making kids take “responsibility,” adults weren’t ready to empanel juries of youthful peers.

In 1977 Washington brought its law in line. Rising crime rates and drug use, even faster-rising fears of the same and news reports about horrible deeds committed by the shockingly young further propelled reforms here and elsewhere. “Delinquency,” a condition to be corrected, left the lexicon, replaced by crimes and offenses to be punished. Kids would be entitled to lawyers and open, public proceedings, which assured fairness and uniformity. Legislatures lowered, and lowered again, the age at which juveniles could be tried as adults for certain serious crimes. Juvenile records became public, just like adult ones.

Still, minors had one out that was not available to adults: If they made restitution, kept their noses clean for a specified number of years and jumped through a series of procedural hoops (effectively requiring they get a lawyer), youthful offenders could get their court records sealed. In 1997 the legislature narrowed this option: Henceforth, records of Class A felonies and sex crimes could not be sealed, and the waiting period for other felonies was raised to as much as 10 years.

Meanwhile, a growing body of brain and behavioral research was showing what parents of teenagers had long suspected: Just because young people look and sometimes act grown up doesn’t mean they are. Brain development — specifically in the cerebral cortex, the seat of judgment, foresight and self-control, among other functions — continues into the 20s. Character is then a more plastic thing, fragile and impressionable but also reparable. Teenagers do stupid, reckless, boundary-pushing things for reasons they don’t understand either. They aren’t necessarily locked into those behaviors for life. But they may be hounded by those deeds, thanks to new technology.


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