By Reps. Ruth Kagi and Mike Hope
Imagine you’re a teenager who, in a momentary lapse of judgment, commits a non-serious offense.
You’re caught, face the consequences of your crime, pay your debt to society, and are fully rehabilitated. Now you’re ready to move forward with a fresh start, but you can’t escape your past, even in adulthood.
That youthful lapse in judgment prevents you from getting scholarships in order to afford your education. It prevents you from being hired for jobs. It even prevents you from being able to rent an apartment. With so many barriers, how can you become a productive member of society?
Our state’s juvenile justice system is founded on the core principle of rehabilitation. It is most successful when youth reintegrate into society and become active, law-abiding, contributing members of their communities.
Unfortunately, here in Washington, having a public juvenile record traps many youth in a cycle of homelessness, joblessness, and poverty, at a great cost to themselves and the taxpayers.
For this reason we, as legislators, are proud to support HB 1651, which restricts access to some juvenile offense records while leaving sexual and more serious offenses open for public view. This bill will improve outcomes for our state’s youth while balancing public safety concerns.
Youth and adults are not the same, as recent breakthroughs in brain development research affirm. Anatomical differences in the adolescent brain make youth less capable than adults of assessing risks, controlling impulsive behavior, and engaging in moral reasoning.
These differences suggest that youth may be less culpable than adults and more amenable to rehabilitation, as adolescents typically “age out” of delinquent behavior.
In cases such as Graham v. Florida and Miller v. Alabama, the U.S Supreme Court acknowledged the legal significance of these scientific findings and stressed the importance of taking these differences into account in the juvenile justice system.
Many people in Washington mistakenly believe juvenile records are already confidential in our state, or that they disappear when a youth turns eighteen. This is not the case.
Washington is one of only eight states where juvenile records are open to the public and made available online. An unintended result of these policies is that rehabilitated youth from other states actually have better access to opportunities than Washington’s own youth.
In other words, someone from California can leave childhood mistakes behind when applying for scholarships, jobs, and housing. Someone from Washington cannot.
Recent articles about this proposed legislation have been very misleading, and we felt it was necessary to clarify its true impacts for the public. Juvenile records would not be deleted or destroyed under this bill; they would simply be closed to public view. Courts, prosecutors, law enforcement, and care agencies would still be able to view these records to protect public safety and provide effective treatment to youth under their care.
HB 1651 would not violate our state’s constitution, nor would it hinder the public’s ability to scrutinize the functioning of the courts. Juvenile court proceedings would remain entirely open to the public, satisfying the state constitutional requirement that “all justice shall be administered openly.”
Juvenile records were actually confidential in our state until 1977, with no constitutional issue. Records for all dependency and mental health proceedings are still confidential, again with no constitutional issue. This bill simply adds one more narrow category to that group.
Rehabilitated youth should be allowed to move on from their childhood mistakes. The public benefits when these young men and women, after paying their debt to society, become productive citizens.
HB 1651 protects public safety by allowing law enforcement, prosecutors, and courts access to juvenile offense records, and leaves records of serious offenses and sex offenses open to the public. It benefits our communities and our economy by reducing youth homelessness and removing barriers to employment and self-sufficiency.
The state House of Representatives passed the measure unanimously. We now look to our Senate colleagues to help advance it on a similar bipartisan basis to the governor’s desk for signature.
Reps. Ruth Kagi (D-Shoreline) and Mike Hope (R-Lake Stevens) serve together in the state House of Representatives.