Our Voice: Sealing juvenile court records means less transparency

Last year a change in the justice system made it easier to seal the court records of juvenile offenders, which many advocates of open government lamented.

Now, just last week, the House and Senate approved a measure that streamlines the process even more.

For those interested in giving youths convicted of minor offenses a better chance at a fresh start, these are good steps.

But as far as protecting open government, the proverbial slope is getting pretty slippery.

The motivation behind making it easier to seal juvenile court records is understandable. The idea that a stupid mistake in the teen years could haunt a person into adulthood is disconcerting, especially since we live in an age where data is collected, stored and accessed so easily.

But the change to sealing these records comes at the expense of open government. Any time court records are sealed we step into troubling territory where oversight of the judicial process is lost.

The state constitution says, “Justice in all cases shall be administered openly.” The law does not list exceptions.

Before last year’s revision, juvenile court records could be sealed only after a complicated process. Now, at a juvenile offender’s disposition, judges can schedule an administrative sealing hearing that usually occurs shortly after the offender’s 18th birthday. If the juvenile has met all the requirements of the court, including paying off any financial obligation, the court record can then be sealed.

This process only works for those who committed less serious offenses. Youths convicted of violent crimes, for example, would not qualify. Also, law enforcement agencies could still gain access to the sealed records.

The most recent legislative change makes it easier for youths to pay their financial obligations to the courts. It was decided the current system was not fair because many youths may not have the means to pay their fees and therefore wouldn’t be allowed to have their records sealed.

In order to fix that, the change recently approved by the House and Senate would allow community service hours to count toward any legal financial obligation. The change also allows a good faith effort toward making payment, so if a youth can pay at least 80 percent of what is owed, then the rest of the debt could be waived.

This latest tweak to the law may not be a huge burden on open government, but a pattern is emerging that chips away at the open records act.

No one wants to see a person unable to get a job or rent an apartment because of poor judgment as a teenager.

But protecting juvenile offenders is coming at the expense of transparency. It is not as good a trade-off as many people seem to think.