Whether or not the record of a juvenile’s involvement with the court is withheld from the public either by expunging it or sealing, it is important to the juvenile’s future. After all, the stain of appearing in court on a charge of wrongdoing may lead to a young person being denied admission to school, college or the military. It may also result in the denial of housing, employment or financial help from the government.

Definitions

The two ways of keeping records from the public are expungement and sealing. In expungement–sometimes called destruction–the electronic record is erased and/or the print record is destroyed. In sealing (also called set aside or restriction of access), though the public cannot see the juvenile’s records, people involved in the case such as the police, social service agencies and the court can view them. Also, researchers can ask for access.

Juvenile records may include arrest records, court records, detention records, probation reports, fingerprints, DNA, exhibits, photos and more. Once the juvenile receives notice that his record has been officially expunged, he can say that he has never been involved in the juvenile justice system if anyone ever asks.

Expungement and Sealing Vary By State

No national laws governing expungement and sealing of records exist. Therefore, since the laws are state-specific, they vary widely. In some states, almost any record can be expunged. In another state, for example, only arrest records and not court records can be expunged. Other states extend eligibility to both arrest, court records and more.

Some states limit which acts are eligible by stating that acts that would be felonies if the person were an adult are not eligible for expungement or sealing. Also, some states do not allow expungement or sealing for various offenses, which may include sex offenses, drug offenses or multiple offenses.

When Are Records Expunged or Sealed?

Regarding the time for expungement or sealing, in a few states, after the case is closed or the youth is discharged from probation, he or his representative may petition the court to expunge or seal the record. However, in most states, expunging or sealing cannot happen before the young person is 18 or 21 years old. And in some states there is a waiting period, which may be years.

Since expungement is automatic in only a few states, the juvenile, his attorney (private or a public defender), a social service agency or a juvenile probation officer has to petition the court to ask that the record be expunged or sealed. Many states charge fees and/or court costs for this process.

Help for Expunging and Sealing Juvenile Records

Even if a record is expunged, it may turn up later in the person’s life. For example, it may be produced during the criminal prosecution of the person as an adult, when he applies for job with law enforcement, when he wants to be admitted to the state Bar or when he applies for a job working with children or the elderly. Despite the fact that a juvenile record will turn up under certain circumstances, it is worth it to go through the process of expunging or sealing a juvenile record.

Even though the families of the juveniles who can hire a private attorney have an advantage over the families who cannot, talking to the social service agency or probation officer involved in the case is useful in helping these families learn how to navigate the waters to the expungement or sealing of records. Also, public defenders may be available to help families who cannot hire a private attorney to clean up the juvenile’s record.

Increasingly, counties and states realize that arrest records and records of court appearances hinder a person’s education and job prospects, especially if they are not a repeat offender. Therefore, in locales throughout the country, periodic free workshops on how to expunge or seal records are available. Organizations publicize these workshops online and in newspapers. Also, the family of a juvenile can just contact a local public defender’s association such as Community Legal Services for advice.

The most important considerations concerning the expungement and sealing of records is for the juvenile or, more likely, his representative to know that every state has its own rules regarding expungement and sealing; that he has a right to apply for his records to be expunged or sealed if his case is eligible; and that he must know what steps to take and follow through on them.