Opinion: Juvenile mistakes shouldn't stay on record forever

Jason Smith

As the Michigan Legislature works to resolve outstanding issues during its lame-duck session, youth justice reform should be a top priority.

Senate Bills 681 and 682, which are currently in the House Judiciary Committee, would make juvenile records confidential except to courts, law enforcement and prosecutors, and also make it easier to have one’s record expunged. We hope these bills can be voted out of committee and passed into law.

Having a court record can make for a lifelong barrier to ever getting a second chance, Smith writes.

Sponsored by Sen. Jeff Irwin and Sen. Pete Lucido, the bills are among reforms that reflect a more modern approach to criminal justice. In October, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed “clean slate” legislation that will automatically clear specific felony convictions if an individual doesn’t commit another crime. Legislators noted that among the reasons for passing the bills is that having even one blemish on an individual’s record can create barriers to employment, education and housing.

Youth who interact with the justice system face similar struggles. Because for them the offense happened at such a young age that having a court record can make for a lifelong barrier to ever getting a second chance.

In its 2014 scorecard, “Failed Policies, Forfeited Futures,” the national Juvenile Law Center ranked Michigan among the bottom regarding policies to keep youth records confidential. Michigan and nine other states still allow for complete public access to most juvenile records. Contrary to popular belief, youth records are not automatically expunged in Michigan when a person turns 18, and the process for expungement is cumbersome.

One person who knows the struggle is David Bowbeer, who was a teen runaway addicted to drugs, but who was eventually able to turn his life around. Now an official working in criminal justice, he still was forced to answer for his teenage crimes when applying for jobs and housing, despite never reoffending, having earned multiple college degrees and enjoying a successful professional career in social work and counseling. He eventually was able to petition to have the record removed after initially being denied.

Bowbeer says that he supports the bills because “if a young person has been held accountable for their actions and repaired any harm caused to others, they’ve reached adulthood … they shouldn’t still have to disclose their delinquency record. They should be free to accomplish the very thing that the court wanted: leading a responsible life.”

Ensuring that a bad youthful decision doesn’t become a lifelong burden is an important step as Michigan continues to enact substantive criminal justice reform. As author Penny Reid said: “You are more than the mistakes of your youth.”

Jason Smith is the policy director for the Michigan Center for Youth Justice. The nonprofit works to create a fair and effective justice system for youth.