THE Legislature is on the verge of passing a bill to automatically seal preconviction court records of less-serious juvenile offenders. The bill, which has passed the House 97-0, did not meet the bill cutoff in the Senate but could still be revived. It is ill-advised and unconstitutional.
The Washington Constitution, Article 1, Section 10, says: “Justice in all cases shall be administered openly …” The words, “in all cases,” mean what they say and there is a reason for them.
As Toby Nixon of the Washington Coalition for Open Government said in legislative hearings, it has been learned over the centuries that secret tribunals cannot be trusted. Nor can a system of justice be held accountable in aggregate; you have to see specific cases.
The proponents — mainly social-work advocates for children — argue that their bill, ESHB 1651, leaves actual court proceedings open to the public. It does. But it removes from the public eye all preconviction records: arrest, hearings and charges.
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This includes court appearances listed on a public docket. The proceedings may be open, but the public will not know about them. That is not administering justice openly.
The law now allows an offender to petition the court to seal juvenile records after two years for nonviolent crimes, and after five years for violent crimes, if the offender has a clean record since then.
The bill’s advocates argue that this is of less value than it used to be because the records are in the hands of credit bureaus and continue to be used by employers or landlords. There may be a proper remedy for this, but it isn’t ESHB 1651.
A final note. The bill would require $500,000 of work on the court system’s 35-year-old computer, which the courts are planning to scrap.
The Legislature should wait for the new computer and use the time to devise a remedy that leaves justice in all cases administered openly.