Lawyers, court clerks, corrections officers and even judges in the juvenile justice system are unwittingly responsible for spreading a myth about juvenile court records that can harm offenders years after they successfully leave the court system, a study by two USM researchers has found.
In interviews and focus groups with more than 200 people, researchers from the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service describe the widespread misconception that juvenile court records are automatically sealed when an offender turns 18.
But in Maine and 23 other states, that is simply not true, said Susy Hawes and Erica King, authors of the 82-page report “Unsealed Fate: The Unintended Consequences of Inadequate Safeguarding of Juvenile Records in Maine.”
“The myth of records being sealed automatically at 18 was being repeated by so many different players,” said Hawes. “Everyone we spoke to in the system had that belief. It’s the vicious cycle of believing something and then hearing it again and believing it.”
Not only was the misconception pervasive, Hawes and King found that juvenile records that show up on background checks are practically indistinguishable from adult criminal charges.
The report and its findings will be the subject of a panel discussion Thursday among attorneys, prosecutors and offenders involved in the juvenile justice system.
While the goal of the adult justice system is to determine guilt and punish those responsible as a way to deter crime, the juvenile system is more holistic, seeking to rehabilitate young people so they can rejoin their communities and be healthy, productive citizens.
But even after a youth has fulfilled the court’s requirements and moved on with his or her life, the consequences of a past transgression can come roaring back.
In excerpts from interviews with former juvenile offenders conducted during the research, Hawes and King found that many former offenders lost jobs when employers found out about a juvenile charge that they believed would be hidden from public view.
In one case, a teenager from Aroostook County was charged with theft. During his court process, his biggest concern was whether the charge could come back to haunt him later, and he asked the court during the hearings.
“The judge clearly said no,” the Aroostook man told the researchers. “He told me my court case would be closed, it would be a sealed case, sealed document.”
Several years later, when the man was in his late 20s, he was hired at a job and withheld information about his juvenile charge. When the human resources department questioned him about the inconsistency, he explained to them it was a juvenile record. The employer asked for proof.
The young man went to the courthouse to request copies of his juvenile file, but he was denied because the file was sealed, a clerk told him. He would have to petition a judge to get copies, he was told.
“All this after I was told my juvenile record would have no effect on my future employment,” he told the researchers. “But somehow my place of employment finds out and then I can’t even have access to my own case file?”
The man did not end up losing his job, but he felt he was wronged by the judicial system.
“It takes one day to ruin a reputation and half a lifetime to rebuild it,” the man said.
MEANING OF ‘SEAL’ VS. ‘CONFIDENTIAL’
Part of the confusion, Hawes and King said, stems from the misuse of the word “seal,” a legal term of art, when many people actually mean “confidential,” a designation for records that are generally viewable by attorneys, law enforcement and other parties involved in a legal case, but not to the general public.
Most juvenile records are confidential, and only some of the records can be viewed by members of the public, depending on the charges.
Serious crimes, such as murder and major felonies are open to the public, as well some misdemeanor offenses if they are not the offender’s first charge of that classification.
But to seal a record, the offender must wait three years and file a petition with the court where the offense took place. To have a chance at successfully sealing the record, the offender must not have committed other juvenile or adult offenses in those three years and must have paid all fines and completed all requirements set out by the court related to the case.
The judge, who has wide discretion, could still deny the motion, and there is no avenue to appeal.
If the motion is granted, the offender can answer questions on forms and during interviews about their criminal history as if the offense never took place.
But time and again, Hawes and King found that people involved in all aspects of the juvenile justice system continue to believe that records are automatically sealed.
Court clerks, whose full-time job is to oversee the proper handling of sensitive documents and information, repeated the misconception when interviewed by Hawes and King.
When the researchers asked 17 clerks across Maine how many juvenile records were successfully sealed in their district since 2010, 10 reported that all juvenile records are automatically sealed.
“I cannot give you a number because juvenile records are all sealed,” one clerk told the researchers.
The remaining seven told Hawes and King that there is no way to track such motions. Those that gave statistics had to rely on their memories. Together, the clerks could recall only 28 motions to seal, and had no records of the outcome of those cases.
ENTRIES IN STATE DATABASE FLAWED
Complicating matters further is that criminal records are not always accurately recorded in the state database that tracks them, Hawes and King found.
Criminal records are maintained by the State Bureau of Identification. For a small fee, anyone can enter a name and date of birth to check whether someone has a criminal history in Maine. But the researchers found inconsistencies in how some juvenile charges are entered and displayed. Juvenile records also are practically indistinguishable from adult crimes, unless the background check is reviewed by someone with extensive knowledge of the criminal justice system.
In other cases, the records showed a felony conviction when the offense was actually a misdemeanor, the researchers found. There is no pathway to correct these records, the report said.
The panel discussion about the findings is scheduled to begin at 4:45 p.m. Thursday at the University of Maine School of Law at 246 Deering Ave. in Portland.
CLARIFICATION: This story was updated at 1:07 p.m. on March 17, 2017 to clarify which juvenile records are confidential.
Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at: