Rule changes by the Washington Supreme Court — meant to mitigate the harm of the juvenile justice system — will instead interfere with the public’s right to know, hinder law enforcement and threaten public safety.
If implemented as is, the court’s good intentions unfortunately will cover the tracks of legal system officials who should be held accountable for their decisions.
The changes would limit access to juvenile records online, making them available exclusively at a county clerk’s office, and would substitute initials for names in juvenile offender records, according to the proposal made by the Washington State Office of Public Defense and the Minority and Justice Commission.
There is no dispute having a juvenile court record can have lasting consequences, including losing out on jobs, renting a home or joining the military. Doing something dumb as a child — when the brain is not fully developed and impulse control is low — should not follow you for the rest of your life. Lack of equity in the system also means youth of color are disproportionately affected.
Those are unacceptable conditions. Legislators and all involved in the justice system should continue to work to find viable solutions. However, the answer does not lie in making records all but disappear from public inspection before they are sealed.
Removing online records would limit access to those without the means to physically travel to courthouses during the business day and essentially deny access to those with disabilities or without resources, wrote Kim Allen, president of the Washington State Association of County Clerks, in a letter to the justices.
Even more concerning is the second rule change, which would refer to juvenile offenders by their initials and birth date. This would further deter access and prevent public scrutiny, shielding judges, public defenders, prosecutors and police from oversight.
It would also impede the work of a host of agencies in the criminal justice system, according to a letter sent to the justices by King County Superior Court Judge Judith Ramseyer, who heads the liaison committee of the Bench-Bar-Press Committee. Known as the fire brigade, the group is activated when there is a dispute over access.
Widespread uproar over the court’s actions led to a recent meeting with representatives from the media, law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, county clerks and juvenile court administrators.
“Many persons share initials, have hyphenated names or aliases, and also share birth dates. Without full names and birth dates, accurate identification is severely compromised,” Ramseyer wrote in her letter. “How, for example, are warrants or no contact orders issued and enforced; sex offender registration; loss of the right to possess a firearm?”
The Washington Constitution, Article 1, Section 10, says, “Justice in all cases shall be administered openly.” But the Legislature has recognized there is a competing interest in juvenile rehabilitation and reintegration, which “constitutes compelling circumstances that outweigh the public interest in continued availability of juvenile court records.”
That was the reasoning behind 2014 legislation that made it easier for juvenile records to be sealed automatically, under most circumstances, when the person turns 18 — an important change that removed a significant burden from young people who had gotten their lives back on track.
Lawmakers have since repeatedly rejected efforts to further restrict access to juvenile records.
That activists found a more receptive audience on the Supreme Court does not undermine the fact that these changes — tentatively scheduled to take effect May 3 — are harmful and ill-considered.
That the charge for protecting the public’s right to know is falling to lower court officials and municipal leaders is particularly disturbing. Voters should take a dim view of the elected justices’ efforts to hide accountability of the organs of the justice system. They should know better.