Young & Arrestless

By Funk, T. Markus | Reason, February 1996 | Go to article overview

Young & Arrestless

Funk, T. Markus, Reason

The case against expunging juvenile arrest records

Daniel Doe (a pseudonym) is a violent man who, like most violent men, was also a violent teen. At age 12, police arrested him for vandalizing a neighbor's house - he had destroyed the furniture, spray-painted the walls, and drowned a caged pet bird in the bathtub. Two years later, he was burglarizing an apartment when the elderly occupant returned home and confronted him. In the scuffle that ensued, the old man broke his hip. When the man died from pneumonia several days later, Daniel was charged with and convicted of involuntary manslaughter.

Daniel's first "adult" arrest came at age 19, when he broke into an occupied home and severely beat the 45-year-old woman who lived there. By the time he was sentenced for that attack, however, his juvenile record, pursuant to Ohio law, had been "expunged" - destroyed. For the second time, Daniel was a first-time offender. Hence, a Cleveland judge, ignorant of Daniel's violent, extensive, felonious past, sentenced him to probation. Two months later, Daniel burglarized yet another house, this time beating the 81-year-old man who lived there to death.

Had the judge known of Daniel's violent criminal past and his demonstrated lack of any rehabilitative potential, there's little doubt that Daniel would have gone to the penitentiary before he had the opportunity to kill the old man.

But the judge didn't know because the law said that he shouldn't know.

Most states have statutory provisions that allow - or even mandate - the expungement of juvenile records once the juvenile turns a certain age. Sometimes the records are actually destroyed; sometimes they are merely "sealed." The practical effect of such legislation is to allow a minor who has committed criminal or, in the lingo of the juvenile courts, delinquent acts to permanently erase his or her record, usually at age 17 or 18. The stated goal of this policy is to allow the juvenile offender to enter adulthood with a proverbial clean slate, thereby shielding him (or, less likely, her) from the negative effects of having a criminal record.

Supporters say expungement is an enlightened practice that merely forgives youthful transgressions. But expungement is actually an astonishingly counterproductive policy that benefits only young criminals. The practice prevents society from acting on the simple fact that those who have committed crimes in the past are likely to commit crimes in the future and hence should be treated differently from true first-time offenders.

By making it virtually impossible to collect meaningful data about juvenile delinquents, expungement also makes it difficult to evaluate crime-prevention and rehabilitation programs. Outside of the criminal justice sphere, the policy has other deleterious effects. Employers, for instance, can't know whether potential employees are prone to stealing or other criminal behaviors. Given these various costs, it's not surprising that a number of states are seriously re-evaluating the sealing of juvenile records.

Expungement laws hearken back to a simpler past. The practice "was designed to deal with delinquents who stole hubcaps, not those who mug old ladies," notes sociologist Rita Kramer in At a Tender Age: Violent Youth and Juvenile Justice (1988). Gargantuan increases in violent juvenile crime underscore the point. Today's juvenile offenders are generally distinguishable from their adult criminal counterparts only by their age - an arbitrary factor indeed. Juveniles are the fastest growing segment among violent offenders. Between 1983 and 1992, according to FBI estimates, violent crime committed by juveniles increased 57 percent. Murders and non-negligent manslaughter rates jumped 128 percent, aggravated assault 95 percent, and rape 25 percent. And cohort studies discussed in Neil A. Weiner and Marvin E. Wolfgang's Violent Crime, Violent Criminals (1989) show that juveniles account for up to 35 percent of all male police contacts. …

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