Since the turn of the century, juvenile courts have been separate from adult courts. The goal of juvenile courts, as the Supreme Court recognized over 50 years ago, is to determine how to rehabilitate juveniles and “save [them] from a downward career.” To further these goals, juvenile court records have historically been shielded from public view. This system allows juveniles to enter adulthood without being publicly labeled as criminals. It has allowed juvenile offenders to go on to become Emmy Award-winning actors, attorneys, software executives, internationally acclaimed poets, and United States Senators.1
In Washington, juvenile records were confidential until 1977, when the legislature passed a law making them public. Today, anyone can search for juvenile offenders on court websites, and reporting agencies purchase access to juvenile court records. As a result, Washington residents are routinely denied jobs, housing, and volunteer opportunities due to youthful transgressions. With juvenile arrest rates so high, thousands of young people are affected.
But that could change. Last week, Rep. Darneille and Sen. Harper introduced bills in the state House (HB 3603) and Senate (SB 6921) that would make juvenile records confidential in most cases. The records in cases where a juvenile has been charged with a serious violent crime will still be public, and judges will have the ability to make other records public. But otherwise, access to the records will be restricted to the court, the attorneys for the state and juvenile, and some juvenile justice or care agencies.
This legislation recognizes that Washington’s experiment with public juvenile records has failed. It will also bring us in line with 39 other states that restrict public access to juvenile court records in most or all cases.
You can get more information about SB 6291 and HB 3603 on the legislature’s web page (http://apps.leg.wa.gov/billinfo/).
1 See Brief of Former Juvenile Offenders Charles S. Dutton, Former Sen. Alan K. Simpson, R. Dwayne Betts, Luis Rodriguez, Terry K. Ray, T.J. Parsell, and Ishmael Beah as Amici Curiae in the case of Graham v. Florida. The Supreme Court held in Graham that it is unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile to life in prison without the possibility of parole.