Letting Young People Recover from Their Misconduct

Our society prosecutes almost all cases against minors in special, juvenile courts because we recognize that young people are different.

In fact, in recent years neuropsychology has learned that the brain’s executive function—functions like planning, decision-making, and impulse control—are still developing well into a person’s twenties.

The legal system regards young people as better candidates for reform than adults. It gives them lighter punishments. For most of the past hundred years, it has protected their future prospects by providing some confidentiality for juvenile court records or proceedings.

In Washington state, though, that confidentiality—that protection from life-long stigma—was in jeopardy until a June 11th decision by the Washington Supreme Court, State v. S.J.C, 2015 WL 3643480. I had the privilege of representing the young man at the center of that case long ago, in the juvenile division of King County Superior Court, in Seattle.

A Mistake at 13 Nearly Produces a Life-long Handicap

When S.J.C. was 13, he touched the private parts of a much younger girl. All signs were that this misconduct arose from inexperience in dealing with the desires that emerge in puberty; S.J.C was generally well-behaved. I was able to negotiate an agreement that he plead guilty to two gross misdemeanors (two counts of Assault in the Fourth Degree with Sexual Motivation) rather than face trial on Child Molestation in the First Degree, a felony under Washington law.

One benefit of this agreement, I thought, was that S.J.C. would have little trouble—assuming he did well in his treatment program and on probation—getting his court file sealed in a few years. Thus he wouldn’t have to worry all his life that persons from whom he sought employment, college admission, or rental housing would find court records of his mistake at age 13.

But over the next few years, the Washington Supreme Court issued many decisions broadening the reach of the “open courts” clause in Washington’s state constitution. When a judge granted our request to seal S.J.C.’s court file, after about five years of good behavior, the prosecutor appealed. The prosecutor argued that the statute allowing judges to seal juvenile court files without finding special justification in each case violated Washington’s open courts clause.

The sealing of a court file that we had expected to be routine—as it had been in hundreds of earlier cases—now depended on winning a landmark case in the state supreme court.

The supreme court found the statute allowing judges to seal juvenile court files was, indeed, constitutional. Young people are different, it said:

The stigma of an open juvenile record and the negative consequences that follow are particularly unjustifiable in light of the fact that the mind of a juvenile or adolescent is measurably and materially different from the mind of an adult, and juvenile offenders are usually capable of rehabilitation if given the opportunity.

The court noted that the consequences of perpetually-open juvenile court files could be dire. For example, “in public housing, a single juvenile offense might result in the entire family’s eviction.”

Washington Appellate Project attorney Greg Link represented S.J.C. in the supreme court. Vanessa Hernandez and Nancy Talner at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Seattle office helped organize several organizations to write friend-of-the-court briefs in S.J.C’s support.

We rejoice with all of them that S.J.C., and thousands of other young Washington citizens who will make similar mistakes in coming decades, will be able to reform and not be dogged by public records.