Believing doesn’t make it true, and when it comes to court records, it’s not belief that counts.
Consider this widely held belief that juveniles with a criminal record get a fresh start when they turn 18. Lawyers believe it and so do their clients. Judges believe it, and so do the clerks who manage the records.
But the problem is that it’s only sort of true.
A recent study by researchers at the Muskie School of Government at the University of Southern Maine found that there is a widespread misunderstanding about the law. A juvenile criminal record can be sealed by a court, but the process is not automatic and past offenses might be showing up in a job seeker’s criminal background checks without his knowledge, making a smooth transition to the straight and narrow adulthood tougher than necessary.
The report “Unsealed Fate: The Unintended Consequences of Inadequate Safeguarding of Juvenile Records in Maine” found few people who understood how the system really works.
“The myth of records being sealed automatically at 18 was being repeated by so many different players,” said Susy Hawes, one of the study’s authors. “Everyone we spoke to in the system had that belief. It’s a vicious cycle of believing something and then hearing it again and believing it.”
Juvenile records are treated differently than adult offenses for a good reason. The juvenile system is designed to rehabilitate a young person who has made some bad choices during a time when their brains are not fully formed. Most young people get through that period without violating the law with support from good families and strong communities, but even the best kids can be led astray.
It’s right to expect an adult to live with the consequences of his choices for the rest of his life, but it’s in the interest of both the juvenile and society in general to give them another chance to get on the right track.
Aside from the fact that it isn’t well understood, there is nothing wrong with the current law.
A juvenile has to wait three years after a conviction to petition the court to have his record sealed. To have a chance at closing that chapter of his life from others’ eyes, the offender has to have a clean record, paid all fines and completed all other instructions and requirements. Even then a judge could refuse to grant the petition, and the former juvenile offender cannot appeal.
It’s a good law because it gives a youthful offender the incentive to straighten out his act. The law gives the court a chance to help a kid who made a mistake while protecting the community from someone who would hide behind juvenile confidentiality while continuing to commit crimes.
Hopefully, this report will be used by lawyers, judges, clerks and probation officers in their training so they can give young offenders and their families the correct information.