Automatically Sealing or Expunging Juvenile Records

By Anne Teigen | Vol . 24, No. 27 / July 2016

NCSL NewsDid you know?

  • Sealing juvenile records refers to closing them to the public, while expunging requires their complete physical destruction.
  • Automatically sealing or expunging records requires no action by the juvenile.
  • Nearly 70 bills were considered in 23 states related to handling juvenile records in 2016. At least eight states considered bills related to automatic sealing or expungement.

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.

State Action

At least 15 states—Alaska, Arkansas, California, Florida, Illinois, Montana, Maryland, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia—have laws that automatically seal or expunge juvenile records in certain circumstances. These laws vary widely in terms of when and which records are automatically sealed or expunged. In Montana, youth court records are sealed and youth probation records are destroyed on the juvenile’s 18th birthday. In Alaska, official court records of some juvenile proceedings are automatically sealed within 30 days of the offender’s 18th birthday, but law enforcement records, like arrest records, remain unsealed. New Mexico law, on the other hand, requires that records be automatically sealed when the case is discharged. The law applies to court and law enforcement records for all offenses.

Illinois passed legislation in 2015 requiring the Department of State Police to automatically expunge law enforcement records when offenders reach age 18 if the crime committed was a low-level offense and the young person has not been arrested in the last six months.

Current Florida law requires juveniles classified as serious offenders to have their records automatically destroyed when the young person turns 26 years old. Juveniles not classified as serious offenders have their criminal history record expunged when they turn 24. In 2016, Florida considered getting rid of the age requirements and automatically destroying records after the juvenile completes his or her sentence.

A number of other states, including Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Tennessee, considered enacting provisions in 2016 that would have automatically sealed or expunged juvenile records, but none of the measures passed.

States remain interested in broadly reforming juvenile justice policies to provide the best results for both public safety and young offenders. As a part of this effort, legislatures are continuing to address the confidentiality of juvenile records by amending sealing and expungement procedures.

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