AN obscure judicial committee in September blew a hole in Article I, Section 10 of the state Constitution, which holds that “Justice in all cases shall be administered openly …”
That committee, the Judicial Information System Committee, has created an unprecedented and confusing two-tier system for the public to access juvenile court records.
Through an administrative change to the state courts’ data system, the committee effectively wiped clean juvenile convictions from the most commonly used public search on the state courts’ website. It also dropped juvenile records from data provided to commercial background-check companies.
It retained juvenile-record access via just a few points, requiring some requesters, even in the Internet age, to physically go to a county courthouse. This restriction means that landlords may not know if a tenant had a juvenile arson conviction, and employers may be in the dark about previous assaults committed by a prospective 18-year-old employee.
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These records are public records. The state Legislature has repeatedly considered bills to make juvenile records categorically exempt, and decided to keep them open.
There are good reasons to do so. A past conviction can be an indicator of future behavior. A presumption of open courts is written into our state Constitution. And open juvenile court records are the means for the public, including journalists, to monitor the work of the criminal justice system.
Instead of a legislative debate, these juvenile court records were squeezed off by a little-known committee, without broad public notice. In comments to the committee, former Supreme Court Justice Phil Talmadge appropriately called this “forum-shopping.”
There are good arguments for restricting access to specific juvenile court records. Juvenile court, after all, is focused on rehabilitation; a youthful mistake should not always haunt a person far into adulthood.
The Legislature has already recognized this, easing the process for sealing juvenile court records so long as former defendants have stayed out of trouble and met other conditions. This requires defendants to make their cases before a judge. Juvenile advocates offer free legal help to do so.
The issues wrapped up in juvenile crime — redemption and accountability — are important and nuanced. The Legislature, for all its faults, is the people’s forum for changing law; that is not the Judicial Information System Committee’s role.
When lawmakers return in January, a reversal of this committee’s backdoor legislating is in order.