Confidentiality of Juvenile Court Records and Proceedings

Trend: States continue to deemphasize traditional confidentiality concerns while emphasizing information sharing.

State Responses documented that during the early 1990's, States made significant changes in how the juvenile justice system treats information about juvenile offenders, particularly violent juvenile offenders. As juvenile crime became more serious, community protection, the public's right to know, and service providers' need to share information displaced the desire to protect minors from the stigma of youthful indiscretions. Legislatures across the Nation have increasingly called for a presumption of open hearings and records, at least for a subset of juvenile offenders. The trend toward openness continued in the 1996 and 1997 legislative sessions.

Public Juvenile Hearings

In 1996-97, six States enacted new laws that opened juvenile court hearings to the public, at least for specified violent or other serious crimes; six States modified existing statutes (see table 6). As of the end of the 1997 legislative session, 30 States required or permitted open juvenile court hearings of cases involving either juveniles charged with violent or other serious offenses or juveniles who are repeat offenders (see table 5).

table 5

table 6

Release/Publication of Juvenile's Name. As more States allow access to juvenile court hearings, so too are they allowing the release or publication of a juvenile's name and address. In 1996-97, three States passed legislation that gives the general public and/or media access tothe name and address of a minor adjudicated delinquent for specified serious or violent crimes; in some cases this also applies to repeat offenders. Thirteen States modified existing provisions (see table 6). As of the end of the 1997 legislative session, 42 States permitted the release of a juvenile's name, address, and/or picture to the media or general public under certain conditions (see table 5).

Juvenile Court Records

Juvenile courts and probation departments collect information about juvenile offenders in legal records such as petitions, findings, orders and decrees, and social history records that include documents and reports on the juvenile's prior legal history, family background, and personality. Juveniles are also the subjects of law enforcement records that can include fingerprints, photographs, offense and investigation reports, education records, treatment agency records, child protective services records, medical records, and records of psychological or psychiatric evaluations.

With respect to serious and violent juvenile offenders, State legislatures have made changes to the confidentiality of juvenile court records, typically the legal record, in the following areas: access to or disclosure of information, use of record information, and sealing or expunging of records.

Disclosure of information. Formerly confidential juvenile court records are increasingly being made available to a wide variety of people. The "need to know" argument necessitates proper disclosure of information among youth-serving agencies. Many States open juvenile court records to school officials or require that schools be notified when a juvenile is taken into custody for all crimes of violence or crimes in which a deadly weapon is used. Congress has also identified the importance of information sharing, having appropriated funding to States under the Juvenile Accountability Incentive Block Grants program to "establish and maintain interagency information-sharing programs that enable the juvenile and criminal justice system, schools, and social services agencies to make more informed decisions regarding the early identification, control, supervision, and treatment of juveniles who repeatedly commit serious delinquent or criminal acts."

In 1996-97, 27 States modified existing provisions that allow disclosure of information contained in juvenile court records; 2 States enacted new laws (see table 6). As of the end of the 1997 legislative session, 48 States allowed juvenile court record information to be specifically released to at least one of the following parties: the public, victims, schools, prosecutors, law enforcement, or social agencies. However, all States allowed records tobe released to any party who can show a legitimate interest, typically by court order (see table 5).

A subset of the disclosure issue is notification rights of both schools and victims (the following section discusses victims rights). Notice to schools represents an area of increased openness of juvenile court information. In 1996-97, 11 States enacted new laws permitting or requiring the court to notify the school district regarding a juvenile charged/convicted of a serious or violent crime; 8 States modified existing statutes (see table 6).

Use of records. Aside from disclosing or sharing information across systems for the purpose of better coordinating services, legislatures have made provisions in three areas of juvenile record use: (1) central repository of juvenile record histories/fingerprinting and photographing, (2) the criminal court's use of defendants' juvenile records, and (3) registration of sex offenders.

Central Record Repositories. Statewide repositories can include adult records only, adult records separate from juvenile records, or adult and juvenile records combined. Centralized data bases facilitate and support law enforcement and court intake operations. Even when not available to the public, juvenile court records can become part of the State criminal recordkeeping system. Fingerprints often serve as the basis of the record. In 1996-97, 1 State enacted a law requiring the juvenile court to provide automated fingerprints, personal identification data, and other pertinent information to the State repository; 11 States modified their laws (see table 6). At the end of the 1997 legislative session, 44 States required information about violent juvenile offenders, typically fingerprints and identifying information, to be part of a statewide central repository, either as part of the adult criminal history repository or as a separate juvenile repository (see table 5).

As of the end of the 1997 legislative session, 47 States allowed juveniles who were arrested to be fingerprinted. This is usually reserved for juveniles who have reached a specific age or have been arrested for felony offenses. Four States (Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin) make no mention of fingerprinting juveniles in their statutes or court rules. Forty-six States allowed photographing of juveniles ("mug shots" for criminal history files) under certain circumstances (see table 5).

Criminal Court Use of Defendant's Juvenile Record. Every State provides for prosecutor and/or criminal court access to juvenile records of adult defendants at some point in the judicial process; however, there is considerable variation in the weight accorded juvenile dispositions in calculating adult criminal history scores (Miller, 1995). In 1996-97, six States enacted new laws permitting or requiring consideration of juvenile court records; one State modified its existing statute (see table 6).

Registration of Sex Offenders. In 1996-97, 14 States enacted laws requiring certain juveniles to register with the sex offender registry; 10 States modified existing sex offender registration laws (see table 6). One group of laws requires registration of sexually violent offenders; another allows the collection of blood and saliva specimens for DNA purposes from juvenile offenders arrested and/or adjudicated for sex offenses and murder. As of the end of the 1997 legislative session, 39 States required juvenile registration for specific sex offenses (see table 5).

Sealing/expungement of juvenile court records. Most juvenile court statutes make provision for disposing of a juvenile's legal or social history record. Typically, statutes stipulate the method of record disposition (e.g., sealing, expunging, or destroying) and the conditions that must be met (e.g., no new offenses), usually providing for the sealing of records for a given time period and then, at the expiration of that time, the destruction of those records. Changes with respect to sealing/expungement are of two types: those that increase the number of years that a juvenile record must remain open and those that prohibit sealing or expungement if a juvenile committed a violent or other serious felony. In 1996-97, four States enacted laws regarding sealing/expungement of juvenile court records; nine States modified existing laws (see table 6). As of the end of the 1997 legislative session, 25 States had statutes or court rules increasing the number of years that must pass before sealing is allowed or prohibiting sealing/expungement of a violent juvenile offender's record (see table 5).

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State Legislative Responses to Violent Juvenile Crime: 1996-97 Update Juvenile Justice Bulletin   ·  November 1998