Juvenile Records: How Confidential Are They?

The whole point of Juvenile Courts is the assumption that young people are "salvageable" and should not be given criminal records, so they can be rehabilitated and not bear the weight of a criminal reputation throughout life. Consequently, a juvenile's criminal offenses are considered civil matters, but unlike most civil cases, the court files are not open to public inspection. The confidentiality of those records is situational, not blanket.

Confidentiality does not mean that the police officer, who pulls a 17-year old driver over, will not have immediate computer access to his criminal history as a juvenile. It would be unreasonable to expect police to stay ignorant of a juvenile's history of carrying a concealed pistol, for example. Court personnel, probation officers, and other government employees have access to them, but how long do they continue to exist?

The answer to that question will depend on each state's laws, because juvenile court procedures and statutes are state controlled. It can be generally stated though, that the police records and court records will remain in existence for some period after the juvenile becomes an adult. Why? The same concern with officer safety is one reason. Differing punishments and processes on a new adult case will depend on the prior juvenile record as well. "Three Strikes" type laws are a good example.

Three Strikes laws, which have been enacted in many states, increase sentencing penalties if the accused has prior violent convictions. Obviously, this requires maintaining records of those offenses. In some jurisdictions, a juvenile conviction for robbery will count the same as an adult prior conviction.

The fact that the police and courts have this information does not make it public. There is no public index, as in adult criminal courts, but that doesn't mean that the juvenile's identity is never revealed. There are exceptions. If a 17-year old drives while under the influence and causes an accident, the victim's attorney will get the information from the court for civil liability purposes, but he or she will have to petition the Juvenile Court to get it. Another exception is made for an adult criminal defendant. His right to a fair trial may require revealing a juvenile witness's (or accused's) identity.

Some states however, have statutes allowing the juvenile to petition the court upon his reaching the age of majority, to seal his records for a period of years. If the petitioner continues to live a law abiding life, the records may be destroyed, but only upon court order, and only for certain offenses, generally not the most serious ones. How long those records have to exist before being destroyed, if ever, will vary from state to state.