A Canary in the Coal Mine: Juvenile Records and the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act

Andrew Keats, American Bar Association •

In the wake of the deadly shooting that took the lives of 19 elementary school children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24, 2022, Congress passed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act (BSCA), the first major piece of federal legislation to address gun violence since the 1994 assault weapons ban. On June 25, 2022, President Biden signed the BSCA into law. Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, Pub. L. No. 117-159, 136 Stat. 1313 (2022).

While the BSCA has been widely celebrated for providing at least a first step toward stemming the tide of gun violence in this country, over the past year youth rights advocates have been quietly raising an alarm about the hidden danger the law could pose to young people who have been impacted by the juvenile legal system. In the law’s effort to stem gun violence, particularly among older adolescents, there is concern that the BSCA may impose new harms on system-impacted youth by opening up their juvenile records. We have been here before.

Once considered a central feature of the juvenile legal system, confidentiality protections for juvenile records were whittled away in the wake of the crime wave of the 1980s and 1990s. Today, juvenile records continue to impact young people’s ability to access education, housing, employment, and other opportunities for social, civic, and economic advancement.

It has taken decades to recognize the harms imposed on young people by laws meant to curb violent crime. Now, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the murder of George Floyd, as violent crime spiked in cities around the country, and calls for legislators to get “tough on crime” have been renewed, it is imperative we learn from the past and ensure we don’t make the same mistakes. The BSCA is a canary in the coal mine. While we must pass laws to combat gun violence, we must also continue to ensure juvenile records remain confidential and are subject to expungement to give young people the fullest opportunity to benefit from the rehabilitative purpose of our juvenile legal system.



About the Expert

Riya Saha Shah is a Senior Managing Director of Juvenile Law Center. Riya began her career at Juvenile Law Center in 2005 as a Sol and Helen Zubrow Fellow in Children’s Law. In her role as a Senior Managing Director, Riya serves on the organization’s Management Team and is a leader in Juvenile Law Center’s programmatic justice work. Since the beginning of her legal career, Riya has engaged in litigation, policy advocacy, and amicus efforts to reduce the harm of the juvenile and criminal legal system.

Andrew Keats joined Juvenile Law Center as a staff attorney in 2018. During his time at Juvenile Law Center, Andrew has engaged in policy advocacy efforts to eliminate fines and fees from the juvenile justice system as well as conducting research and advocacy to increase confidentiality and expungement protections for youth with juvenile records. Currently Andrew is focused on litigation to prevent youth from being tried as adults in the criminal justice system and ensuring those who are tried as adults do not receive the state’s harshest punishments and instead are afforded a meaningful opportunity for release. Andrew has also authored numerous amicus briefs in state supreme courts around the county.