A bill to automatically seal court records for juveniles guilty of all but a handful of heinous crimes rolled through the House and picked up momentum during Senate hearings. It had the noble intention of preventing people from marring their permanent records through youthful misjudgments.
The concept was so appealing, in fact, that lawmakers were willing to set aside issues like government transparency, court accountability — even the declaration of our state constitution: “Justice in all cases shall be administered openly.”
Proponents of H.B. 1651 have cited instances in which young adults were denied jobs, housing or college admission when background checks uncovered things like drug infractions, thefts or assaults on their juvenile records.
One sympathetic young woman, now a law-abiding military wife, told legislators she has been unable to find current employment because she committed a theft when she was a juvenile.
One problem with this line of argument: Teens and young adults who have behaved themselves are already entitled to request the clearing or sealing of their juvenile records. (Admittedly, the reach of the Internet creates urgency for doing this effectively.)
A legal project in Seattle now coaches juvenile offenders on how to navigate the court system to have their records cleaned up. The very need for this training exposes the disheartening truth that different people have varying levels of access to this potential remedy.
Here’s where levelheadedness makes an appearance. The original bill would automatically have sealed virtually all records for juvenile offenders, from the point of arrest onward — a sweeping and potentially disruptive change to our open justice system.
In an amended bill, senators took the right approach, addressing the problem of unequal and inconsistent administration of the process for sealing records.
Under the senate’s version, courts will administratively schedule opportunities for offenders who have turned 18 (and met all the terms and costs of their court sentences) to apply to have their cases sealed. And they’ll be able to do this without appearing in court or hiring a lawyer.
We live in a time when win-win solutions are disparaged, and compromise is viewed as a dilution of “virtue.” Champions of H.B. 1651 no doubt believe they are pursuing a great good by shielding young offenders from long-term consequences. The Senate action shows the problem can be addressed incisively, effectively and without undue harm to our state’s fundamental principles.
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