In Our View: Government in Full View

There’s bad news and good newsabout the people’s right to know

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Your right to access information about how your government operates suffered one negative news story (at the state level) and two positive developments (at the federal level) in recent days. We’ll start with the bad news from Olympia.The state Senate is considering a bill that would restrict public access to juvenile criminal records. Rowland Thompson of Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington said in a written statement: “This is a sea change in how all this is done.” Even if there were a strong argument for such a sea change, it would still erode the public’s right to know, which in this case is enshrined in the state constitution. But as it is, the argument is flimsy.

Representatives of the juvenile defense bar and public defenders argue that young people who have committed crimes are unfairly kept from getting jobs and scholarships because of public access to information about those crimes. In an Associated Press story, state Sen. Nick Harper, D-Everett, said: “This bill gets at what it is we’re really trying to address, which is emphasizing the rehabilitative nature of the system, not the punitive nature of it.”

That argument might work for the juvenile criminals, but it seriously curtails the rights of employers and officials who award scholarships, not to mention the public. They need to know what shadows lurk in the backgrounds of young people. And even if full recovery and restitution is made and punishment served, the information should still be available to the public. In fact, such a turnaround in a young person’s life could even weigh in his or her favor.

A more rational argument is presented by Tom McBride of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys: “Is the solution to hide that information? It seems more healthy to deal with that than to push it away.”

State laws allow juvenile conviction records to be sealed, but many complain the process is unwieldy. The proposed change in the law would allow closed records to be unsealed, but that, too, would be an overly complicated process.

The overwhelming bottom line: Hiding information about crimes is never a good idea. And if a crime keeps a kid from getting a job or a scholarship, it’s no one’s fault but the kid’s.

As for the two positive steps toward open government, c-span.org reports new developments in the U.S. House of Representatives. During the tribute to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, extra cameras provided additional angles and close-ups of the Giffords family in the House gallery. “Why not permit such camera shots every day?” was the question in a statement from c-span.org. Indeed, why not?

Also, Roll Call describes a change in press rules that occurred at the State of the Union address. Reporters were allowed to bring iPhones, iPads, Balckberrys and laptops into the House press gallery on a trial basis. Although the ban on photos or videos was upheld, it’s good to see members of the press allowed to use the tools of our trade in the House chamber. We hope the new rule sticks and is expanded to all government buildings.

What, after all, could possibly be wrong with improving the public’s access to information about government?