Approximately 1 million young people were arrested in the United States in 2014. The moment these young people come into contact with the police, a record is created. A juvenile record includes all documents held by the police department, courts, district attorney and probation department for any criminal activity in which anyone under 18 was involved.
A commonly held misconception is that once children turn 18, their juvenile records disappear and they can go forth with a “clean slate.” In many instances that is not the case, and young offenders may face serious consequences and obstacles as a result of their juvenile record. A juvenile adjudication can prevent a young person from receiving financial aid for higher education, getting a job, joining the military or being admitted into certain licensed professions. It can also affect eligibility for public housing, not only for the delinquent minor, but for his or her family as well.
Lawmakers are mindful of both the immediate and long-term collateral consequences that juvenile records can impose on future education, employment and other transitions to adulthood. State legislation in the last 10 years has included provisions to seal, expunge and implement other confidentiality safeguards for juvenile records.
Sealing refers to closing records to the public but keeping them accessible to a limited number of court or law enforcement personnel connected to a child’s case. For example, in Nebraska, once a juvenile record is sealed, no information contained in that record may be disclosed to potential employers, licensing agencies, landlords or educational institutions. However, the record does remain accessible to law enforcement officers, prosecutors and sentencing judges for purposes of investigating and prosecuting any future crimes in which the youth may be involved.
Expungement, on the other hand, involves the complete physical destruction of a juvenile record. All references to the juvenile’s arrest, detention, adjudication, disposition and probation must be deleted from the files of the court, law enforcement, and any other person or agency that provided services to a child under a court order. An expunged record is to be treated as though it never existed.
All states have some sort of procedures that allow juveniles to petition to either seal or expunge their records in certain cases. However, these procedures can be confusing and cumbersome, and in many instances, the young person is never notified if, when or how the record can be expunged. In some states, a juvenile has no power to initiate the sealing process because sealing or expungement can only occur at the direction of the prosecutor or judge. A recent legislative trend is to make it easier for young people by providing for automatic sealing or expungement of juvenile records, meaning the records are sealed or expunged without any action on the part of the youth.