The Dangerous Myth That Juvenile Criminal Records Are Sealed Forever

Even judges and lawyers wrongly believe that youth offenders are free of their past as adults

Illustration: Vocativ
Mar 20, 2017 at 3:00 PM ET

“A juvenile’s record is sealed at a certain age. The charges get dropped. It’s automatic.”

It’s a common belief that any encounters a young person might have with the legal system will be erased when they become an adult. So common, in fact, that the quote above comes from a Maine Department of Corrections officer, somebody who should know how the state handles juvenile records. But the idea that such records are just gone forever is a myth, as many states do shockingly little to protect juvenile records or keep them out of the public eye.

A recently released report from the University of Southern Maine explains that such records don’t automatically disappear, even though just about everyone the researchers talked to — including the corrections officer quoted — believed they were. Worse, the fact that this myth persists means juvenile offenders can be in for a nasty surprise when they apply for a job and their employer finds their criminal history. While the report focuses specifically in Maine, 23 other states have the exact same laws regarding the handling of juvenile records, and these misconceptions are a nationwide problem.

“There’s no state that’s fully protecting records in a way where they’re confidential throughout the court proceedings and then immediately expunged upon conclusion of the case,” attorney Riya Shah told Vocativ.

Shah works at the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia and consulted on the Maine report. The center has put together a national report card assessing how different states handle such records. If found that few states make records inaccessible to the public by sealing them or physically destroying them. Shah stressed that while the overall grades are subjective, the underlying metrics, like which states force young offenders to petition for their record to be sealed, and which states make such records available to the public, are a matter of legal record.

“Until your record affects you, you don’t actually know if it’s going to affect you,” she said. Juvenile records generally won’t show up on regular public records databases like PeopleSearch, but they will be available on more comprehensive sites used by employers, military recruiters, and college admissions officers. “There’s just so many cases where you hear, ‘The job market is really hard and there are 300 people applying to this job, and I’m going to go with the kid who doesn’t have the record.'”

So why does the myth exist even within the criminal justice system? One reason, Shah said, is that modern juvenile courts have morphed from a system concerned with protecting kids to a more adversarial one akin to their adult counterparts, with more severe punishments and less interest in protecting confidentiality. People’s understandings of the new paradigm haven’t yet caught up to this new reality.

“It’s kiddie court, it’s no big deal,” said Shah, characterizing what she saw as a common attitude about these courts. “That idea is held unfortunately by youth and families, but also — I think even more so — by those working in the court system, because they don’t see the after-effects of the case.” Years later, the truth often doesn’t trickle back to the judges and lawyers who keep passing along the misconceptions.

And though any juvenile offender can be affected by these laws, certain groups are far likelier to find themselves the victims of these myths as they get caught up in the criminal justice system at younger ages, with young black people feeling the brunt of these policies. While pretty much all states offer some ability to get juvenile records sealed or expunged, many people don’t know to follow-up on this.

“It’s a tagging system in a way and it just follows them throughout their life,” said Shah, pointing to the vicious cycle that the myth of sealed records creates. “They are not able to then move past that experience in the justice system at a young age, and it just leads to further involvement in the system.”

Because this report is an academic study instead of an advocacy tool, Shah is optimistic that it can have a tangible effect on policy going forward. She said some states did update their juvenile records laws in response to the center’s initial 2014 report card, so progress is certainly possible — this appears to be one problem where simply being aware there’s a problem in the first place makes a big difference.