A bill to seal juvenile records gains momentum in Olympia

Testimony ran positive on Rep. Ruth Kagi's measure to keep certain, non-violent juvenile records confidential.
Rep. Ruth Kagi, longtime advocate for at-risk youth.

Rep. Ruth Kagi, longtime advocate for at-risk youth. Credit: www.leg.wa.gov

Two views clashed Monday: Kids shouldn't be haunted for a lifetime by a dumb teenage mistake vs. juvenile courts shouldn't operate in secret.

The Washington Senate's Human Services & Corrections Committee took testimony on a bill that would make juvenile records confidential except in the case of serious crimes. The bill's sponsor, Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Seattle, said its purpose is to ensure that a non-violent crime committed by a young person doesn not haunt him or her forever, preventing them from being accepted into college, landing a job or even renting an apartment. 

"This bill tries to balance public safety and the importance for a youth to have a life after they turn 18," Kagi told the committee. "When a juvenile commits a crime, the question is should they have to carry that crime with them for the rest of their lives."

In 1977, Washington opened juvenile offender records up to the public. Since then, a person can seal his or her juvenile file on a case-by-case basis, but the criteria for sealing has become stricter over the years. Kagi's bill would limit access to non-violent juvenile files to the court, the appropriate attorneys and the defendant. Exceptions include sex crimes, serious violent crimes, first-degree arson, second-degree assault of a child, second-degree kidnapping, leading organized crime and malicious placement of an explosive. 

The House passed Kagi's bill unanimously (96-0) on Feb. 14.

In Monday committee hearing, critics of Kagi's bill argued against semi-blanket confidentiality, saying it would let courts operate in secret. News organizations, the contended, need access to individual court files to make sure the system is working properly. Whether, for example, the juvenile justice system treats minority younth differently than white kids. Supporters of keeping juvenile files open pointed to the 1988 King County courthouse suicide of Judge Gary Little, whom the Seattle Post-Intelligencer was about to expose as a molester of juvenile defendants, and to the 2013 "Kids For Cash" scandal in Pennsylvania in which judges were bribed to send juvenile offenders to privately-owned detention centers.

"If you throw a blanket over the juvenile justice system, you're saying we trust that everyone in the juvenile system is perfect," said Bill Will of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association. John Woodring, representing the Retail Housing Association, argued that Kagi's bill would make it difficult for landlords to screen prospective tenants. But the majority of Monday's testimony was in favor of Kagi's bill, primarily on the grounds that a teenage mistake should not ruin a person's entire life. About 95 percent of juvenile crimes are non-violent, said King County Superior Court Judge Mary Yu, who supports Kagi's bill. "We hold them accountable (during their teen years) while teaching them acceptable behavior," she said.

"A childhood mistake should not be a barrier to people who've dealt with their mistakes," said Shoreline Police Chief Shawn Ledford, adding that King County Sheriff John Urquhart shares his opinion.

Angie Barnies is 36, a military wife living in Spokane. As a young teen in a bad home situation, she was arrested for stealing. That juvenile misstep has followed her ever since. She has no problem getting hired on military bases, Barnies told the committee. But she has never been able to survive the off-base background checks.

"I can work on a federal base," said Barnies. "But not in Washington."

John Stang covers state government for Crosscut. He can be reached by writing editor@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Feb 28, 8:14 a.m. Inappropriate

What science has taught us about adolescent brain development should inform legislators waffling on this law.

gaia

Posted Fri, Feb 28, 8:52 a.m. Inappropriate

Considering how many lives have been ruined by the actions of teenagers, why should they get a pass on paying for their actions.

Djinn

Posted Fri, Feb 28, 1:30 p.m. Inappropriate

They don't get a "pass," they serve their time. And we're talking about non-violent offenses - how do these ruin people's lives? Companies are profiting from selling these records while most other states don't allow this. Sealing their records would allow them to find housing, get jobs, and contribute to society. Isn't that what we want to achieve through rehabilitation system?

Posted Fri, Feb 28, 7:34 p.m. Inappropriate

Ever heard of cyber bullying?

Djinn

Posted Mon, Mar 3, 2:38 p.m. Inappropriate

Seal the records. And as long as the person doesn't commit another misdemeanor or felony as an adult, the records stay sealed. But if the person continues to break the law as an adult then unseal the juvenile record and use that when determining the penalty.

This lets people grow and learn from their mistakes while allowing courts to recognize career criminals who started their trade before 18.

talisker

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