Every jurisdiction in the country provides for at least some degree of access to juvenile court records. Criminal court access to juvenile records is easily the most common type of access. Indeed, adult court access to juvenile records of adult defendants is permitted in every state. In 48 states, this authority is explicitly set forth in statute law.
A 1995 National Center for Juvenile Justice survey found that the following organizations and agencies are customarily given access to juvenile court records, whether on a de jure or de facto basis:
- Institutions or agencies with juvenile custody (37 states);
- Prosecutors (33 states);
- Juvenile court judges and professional court staff (34 states);
- Law enforcement (26 states);
- Probation officers (26 states); and
- Criminal court staff (24 states).
In addition, 29 states allow inspection of records by the juvenile; 30 states grant access to the juvenile's parents or guardian; 36 states allow the juvenile's attorney to look at records; and 24 states grant access to victims of juveniles. Four states direct that people deemed to be in danger from a juvenile may have access to the juvenile's record or, at a minimum, allow inspection of the juvenile's record. Twenty states now permit school officials at least limited access to information concerning the juvenile's name and address, as well as disposition of charges.
Adult courts are most apt to use juvenile records in sentencing determinations. Twenty-seven states have adopted statutes that prescribe the inclusion of a juvenile record in a presentence report or, at a minimum, authorize the adult court to consider the defendant's juvenile record. In 14 states, a juvenile record is considered among the factors in the state sentencing guidelines. As a practical matter, this means that the juvenile record is "counted" in calculating the offender's criminal history score.
Roughly one-half of the states expressly authorize prosecutors to obtain access to juvenile records for charging determinations. Some states also allow access by social welfare agencies, the military, school authorities, the institution to which the juvenile is confined, the victim of the juvenile's act, researchers, criminal justice agencies to which the juvenile has applied for employment, and "others as the court may determine who have a legitimate interest in the proceedings." Some jurisdictions permit access when specifically authorized by the court. Others specify the parties to whom the record may be released and, additionally, require a court order.
Federal law makes juvenile court records confidential, subject to seven important exceptions. Six of these exceptions apply to all juvenile delinquency proceedings occurring in federal courts, and require courts to release juvenile court records in the following circumstances:
- In response to inquiries received from another court of law;
- In response to inquiries received from an agency preparing a presentence report for another court;
- In response to inquiries from law enforcement agencies where the request is related to the investigation of a crime or a position within that agency;
- In response to inquiries, in writing, from the director of a treatment agency or the director of a facility to which the juvenile has been committed by a court;
- In response to inquiries from an agency considering the person for a position immediately and directly affecting the national security; and
- In response to inquiries from any victim of such juvenile delinquency or, if the victim is deceased, from the immediate family of such victim, relating to the final disposition of such juvenile.
The seventh exception applies to chronic and serious juvenile offenders over the age of 13, as recently amended by the Crime Control Act of 1994, and requires that information relating to guilty adjudications be transmitted to the FBI. Once there, the FBI treats this information in the same manner as the FBI treats adult conviction information.
Although sealing and purging policies appear to be inconsistent, with the trend toward increasing the availability of juvenile records, sealing and purging retains substantial support. In most states, sealing and purging laws remain on the books, frequently with little change over the last decade. The reason, no doubt, is that in most states, sealing and purging is available only for those juvenile offenders who have demonstrated some rehabilitation by establishing a clean record period. Even today, those juveniles who, after committing one or two offenses, establish a clean record period represent the great majority of the juvenile offender population.
All but two states govern by statute the sealing and expungement of juvenile records. Sealing and requirement laws, like other laws governing juvenile justice records, are more likely to apply to juvenile court records than to law enforcement records.
Where records may be sealed, certain conditions must usually be met, including a clean record period, no subsequent convictions or adjudications, no pending proceedings, attainment of a defined age, expiration of juvenile court jurisdiction, satisfactory outcome of the proceedings for which the record was created, and the type of offense. Expungement guidelines are similar to sealing guidelines, but because of the finality of expungement, court orders are almost always required.
In most states, access to sealed records is strictly regulated. Only a few states do not address the issue. In over 20 jurisdictions, consent of the court is required. In several states, the record may be unsealed if the juvenile is convicted of another crime or adjudicated delinquent. In three states, reopening of the record in these circumstances is automatic. The courts have made clear that there is not a constitutional right to seal or expunge juvenile records and that a court may unseal records.
The preceding article was adapted from the Bureau of Justice Statistics publication "Privacy and Juvenile Justice Records: A Mid-Decade Status Report," NCJ-161255.