Compassion gone awry

“This will go down on your permanent record.” Eye roll.

Once a severe threat uttered by parents and school principals, it morphed into an ironic punchline. But now there is a national movement to protect criminal offenders from discrimination in housing, hiring and education. And it advocates sealing up permanent records or taking other steps to make records less accessible.

If employers or landlords or scholarship committees don’t know you have a criminal past, the reasoning goes, they can’t hold it against you unfairly. Largely, this is a reaction to the reach the Internet has given to agencies and businesses that perform background checks.

In Washington state, the emphasis is on young offenders. A legislative proposal would require courts to automatically seal juvenile records for all but a handful of serious offenses. This bill was introduced last session and is expected to be considered again next year.

Kids take stupid risks and make foolish judgments. Why should these things ruin their futures? ask civil libertarians and youth advocates. This is a constructive and compassionate viewpoint — but it leaves us with a couple of problems.

First, judges may be willing to accept auto thefts as relatively minor crimes. The rest of us (especially those whose cars were stolen) may disagree. So the proposed policies would be widely and negatively viewed as a doubling down on leniency.

Second, automatic sealing would make the court system less accessible and less accountable to the people. Never mind that our state constitution guarantees the open administration of justice.The sealing of juvenile records prevents “outsiders” — those of us who are not judges or prosecutors — from knowing if justice is being meted out equally, if the system is effectively rehabilitating kids, or if specific individuals in the system are doing their jobs well.

Meanwhile, anointed like pre-Reformation priests, “insiders” retain the sacred knowledge. They alone can look at the sealed files and assess the performance of their colleagues and peers. Unholy.

Instead of weakening democracy by blocking public scrutiny, we should look for less drastic solutions.

Is the procedure for the appropriate sealing of files too cumbersome? Make it faster and simpler for individuals who are now constructive and law-abiding citizens to make these requests.

Do employers or landlords use court records to discriminate? Let the Legislature amend civil rights statutes to outlaw this.

Judges and representatives should realize that shuttering public records is no balm, no matter how serious the perceived ill. It hurts us more than it heals us.

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