Lessons from "Kids for Cash," Part 3: Juvenile Records Don't Just "Disappear"
This is the third blog post in our Lessons from "Kids for Cash" blog series, which explores some of the critical issues facing youth today that were brought to light by the "kids-for-cash" scandal and are depicted in the new film "Kids for Cash." "Kids for Cash" opens in theaters in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Denver, and Miami on February 28.
When 13-year-old Matt watched his parents’ difficult divorce devolve into a nasty custody battle, he struggled to keep his emotions in check. One evening, after Matt accidentally knocked over his mother’s boyfriend’s beer, an argument ensued and Matt threw a piece of steak at the boyfriend. At the time, Matt was 13 years old, stood 4 feet 3 inches tall, and weighed 82 pounds—while the boyfriend was 6 feet 3 inches tall and weighed approximately 210 pounds. Still, Matt’s mother called the local police, and Matt ended up before Luzerne County, PA juvenile court judge Mark Ciavarella.
His hearing was brief. Matt denied “assaulting” anyone and hoped the judge and the adults involved with the court would step in and help put an end to his parents' behavior. Instead, he was nevertheless handcuffed, shackled, and led from the courtroom in disbelief. He spent two and a half months in a facility for delinquent teens, until his father contacted a local newspaper. Five days after his story came to light, Ciavarella released Matt and placed him on probation.
While many states limit availability of juvenile records to law enforcement, court officials, and designated others, other states engage in the harmful practice of selling records to credit bureaus, employers, and colleges.
End of story? Not quite. Matt’s involvement with the juvenile justice system meant that he now had a juvenile record displaying his history of “assault.” Contrary to popular belief, his record would not simply disappear when he turned 18. While many states limit availability of juvenile records to law enforcement, court officials and designated others, other states engage in the harmful practice of selling records to credit bureaus, employers, and colleges. If Matt didn’t proactively seek out an attorney to help him file a petition to erase, or “expunge,” his record, it would follow him well into adulthood, potentially affecting his ability to find a job, rent an apartment, or pursue higher education.
Fortunately for Matt, Juvenile Law Center intervened on behalf of all of the Luzerne County youth. In 2009, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted our petition to vacate the delinquency adjudications (or “findings of guilt,” in adult court) and expunge the juvenile records of the more than 2,500 youth who appeared before Ciavarella from 2003 to 2008—including Matt.
Although their records were expunged, these youth—and thousands of others in similar situations across the country—could still be in jeopardy. Even when juvenile records are ordered to be destroyed, it is unclear whether this order applies to records contained in private databases: potential employers, landlords, and others may still be able to see “erased” records.
Most state expungement policies do not happen automatically and fail to appreciate that teenagers, lacking maturity, often act impulsively and make bad decisions. Think about the things you did at age 17—would you do them now? Would you want information about that behavior readily available to members of the public? Those bad decisions should not haunt children for the rest of their lives.
How Can We Solve This Problem?
To reduce the consequences to youth of having a juvenile record, Juvenile Law Center recommends the following actions:
1. Limit the public availability and collateral consequences of juvenile records. Expungement is available for juvenile offenses because of the well-established view that juveniles deserve second chances. When youth seek to become productive members of society, pursuing employment or education opportunities, their juvenile records should not hold them back.
Lawmakers should enact legislation that prevents juvenile records from restricting employment and educational opportunities, and should also limit the ability of private databases to gain access to juvenile arrest and disposition (or “sentencing”) information.
2. Reduce barriers to expungement of juvenile records by promoting policies that are easy for youth and parents to understand and for professionals to implement. Current laws in many states place the burden of filing a petition for expungement on the youth, who is often unaware of the process or the consequences.
One way that local officials can rectify this is by designating one unit of government—like the court clerk, or the public defender office—to take responsibility for notifying youth of their eligibility for expungement, explain the potential consequences of not acting, and provide assistance in filing petitions. Likewise, initiatives like Expunge.io in Illinois empower youth to take charge of this process.
Another less burdensome solution is for state law to automatically expunge records in most juvenile cases, without requiring that a petition be filed by the youth.