A middle school student finally decides to fight back after being pushed and tripped by a classmate for months—and ends up with a juvenile record that affects his college admissions five years later. A 27-year-old IT professional fails a criminal background check and loses his job because of a charge when he was 15 that resulted in probation. A young woman’s dream of serving her country as her father and grandfather did is nearly dashed due to a juvenile adjudication.
These stories are detailed in “Futures in the Balance,” a new resource from the School Superintendents Association and the National Juvenile Defender Center. About 700,000 young people are arrested in the U.S. every year. The moment these young people encounter the police, records are created outlining their alleged behavior. With every step they take into the justice system, more records are created—of arrests, charges, dispositions, out-of-home placements and terms of probation.
Although some laws protect the confidentiality of juvenile records, “Futures in the Balance” dispels many myths. For example, it is widely believed that juvenile records just disappear once a person turns 18. But the National Juvenile Defender Center reports that about 94% of employers conduct some form of background check on applicants and 90% of landlords run checks on potential tenants. These checks can surface juvenile records in many states.
Sometimes school officials and other adults think they will be helping youth by referring them to the juvenile court when they misbehave. However, juvenile records, even arrest records without a conviction, can affect young people years after leaving the juvenile justice system. The impact can include difficulty obtaining education, employment, housing and other opportunities, potentially limiting a young person’s ability to make a successful transition to adulthood. With youth of color disproportionately represented in every part of the juvenile justice system, being marked by a juvenile record can affect entire communities.
Diverting Youth From the System
State lawmakers across the country are recognizing these hardships and are examining policies aimed at limiting the lifelong consequences of juvenile justice system involvement. Many states have looked at their own data and have enacted laws that divert young people from the juvenile justice system altogether, thus avoiding any associated consequences. Research has shown diversion is more effective in reducing recidivism among youth than conventional judicial interventions.
In the past four years, states have enacted legislation expanding opportunities for young people to complete certain requirements in lieu of being formally charged with an offense, or in exchange for the original charges being dismissed or reduced. For example, in 2018, Massachusetts established a statewide framework for diversion that gives police, prosecutors and judges the authority to divert youth from court prior to arraignment. In 2017, Utah made numerous changes to keep youth charged with lower-level acts out of the system, including removing juvenile court jurisdiction over certain school-based behaviors and requiring that most youth charged with lower-level offenses receive the opportunity for nonjudicial adjustment, a form of diversion. One of the sponsors of reforms, Utah Representative Lowry Snow (R) said, “Early intervention is the key to success for young people, as well as our communities.”
Since enacting those reforms, the rate of juvenile court referrals fell 27% between fiscal years 2016 and 2020, and the portion of cases receiving a nonjudicial adjustment increased from 31% to 56% of referrals, reflecting a decrease in youth entering the juvenile court system.
Policymakers are also making it easier to seal (close to the public) or expunge (physically destroy) juvenile records.
In the last three years, nine states have enacted legislation making it easier for young people to maintain confidentiality or to seal and/or expunge their records from juvenile court.
In Maine, juvenile case records must now be kept confidential and only disclosed, disseminated, inspected, or obtained by certain parties or by court order. The court may not disclose or disseminate records unless the young person is notified and given the opportunity to be heard. A Texas provision allows a court, without a hearing, to immediately seal records related to alleged conduct of a juvenile if the court finds the allegations are not true. The law also gives authority to a juvenile court to order the sealing of records for youth referred to juvenile probation.
Procedures to seal or expunge records can be confusing, costly and cumbersome; in many instances, young people are never notified if, when or how records can be expunged. With automatic sealing or expungement, records are sealed or expunged without any action on the part of the youth. Twenty-four states currently have some provision for automatic sealing or expungement of records, but the laws vary widely in terms of when and which records are automatically sealed or expunged. For example, in Nebraska, any young person’s record must be sealed automatically upon satisfactory completion of diversion, mediation, probation, supervision or other treatment program. In Kentucky, the record can only be sealed automatically if the charges are dismissed.
In 2020, Michigan enacted the “Clean Slate for Kids” package of bills that established the automatic expungement of traffic records and some misdemeanor violations if there are no additional offenses within two years or until the young person turns 18. Another provision provides that juvenile records are no longer public and may be viewed only by certain law enforcement agencies.
Fines and fees are another collateral consequence of juvenile court involvement. Legal financial obligations, including fines, fees, administrative costs and costs for reimbursement, can accrue for justice-involved youth and their families from the moment of arrest, expand the duration of a delinquency case, and compound long past its conclusion. The inability to pay often results in further involvement in the juvenile justice system. For example, in many states, inability to pay legal financial obligations results in difficulty getting records expunged, the imposition of civil judgments, cases remaining open longer, or youth being sent to out-of-home placement or staying longer in a placement than they would have otherwise. Excessive fines, costs and fees also contribute to racial and economic disparities.
In recent years, at least nine states—California, Louisiana, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, Nevada, New Hampshire, Washington and Wyoming—enacted legislation aimed at reducing financial burdens on young people and their families by limiting these financial obligations. In 2021, as part of a sweeping reform bill, New Jersey eliminated much of the juvenile court’s discretion to assess fines and barred imposing a fine as a penalty during sentencing.
Maryland repealed multiple statutory provisions that authorized the imposition of fines and fees, Wyoming eliminated the state filing fee for expungement, and Louisiana judges are now allowed to waive costs and fees in juvenile cases for any reason.
This year, New Mexico removed fines and administrative fees from numerous provisions in the state’s Children’s Code and eliminated the $10 application fee for a public defender in Children’s Court. “Fines and fees prevent youth from investing in their futures and push low-income youth and their families deeper into poverty,” New Mexico Representative Gail Chasey said. “They are yet another stumbling block for youth, making it more difficult to complete court requirements, invest in their education and refocus on their futures. Instead of addressing the root causes of young people’s involvement in the juvenile system, imposing fines and fees only compounds the stress and family strain or trauma that led to it.”
In many places, the consequences of a juvenile record can haunt a person throughout his or her life. Many legislatures are looking at policy solutions that avoid bringing youth into the system in the first place and changing the availability and use of juvenile records so young people can grow past their juvenile court experiences to become productive, law-abiding adults.
Anne Teigen tracks juvenile justice issues for NCSL.