Bill in Legislature would seal most juvenile offender records

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

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After being open to public scrutiny for the past 35 years, most juvenile offender records would be sealed under a bill passed unanimously March 6 in the state House and now under consideration in the Senate.

Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Shoreline, and other representatives crafted the bill out of concern that juvenile offenders have been hampered from reintegrating into society because information about felonies they committed is publicly available.

"They are denied housing, employment and education opportunities on the basis of these records," her bill states.

Several speakers agreed Tuesday at a public hearing conducted by the Senate Committee on Human Services and Corrections.

"Kids have and will continue to make mistakes," said Sara Franklin, mother of a 23-year-old son with a juvenile record. "When they've righted those mistakes, why do we keep them in a prison without bars?"

But others, including the Washington Coalition for Open Government, said sealing juvenile records prevents oversight of the juvenile court system.

"We agree discrimination against juvenile offenders is a problem, but we don't think allowing juvenile courts to operate in secret is the answer," said the coalition's Toby Nixon.

Rowland Thompson of Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington said that companies have contractual agreements with the state to be able to gather felony records in mass downloads. Those companies then make the information available on the Internet. Landlords, employers and educational institutions can do a simple search and find the information.

The bill would go into effect on July 1, 2014. Under it, all juvenile offender records would be sealed, except for in cases of serious violent crimes, serious sex offenses, first-degree arson, first-degree conspiracy to commit arson, second-degree assault of a child, second-degree kidnapping, leading organized crime and first-degree malicious placement of an explosive.

The records related to those exceptions would continue to be available.

The bill would continue to allow the public and the press to attend all juvenile court proceedings, regardless of the charge.

Juvenile records from before July 1, 2014, would not be automatically sealed, but the bill allows them to have many of the records sealed by petitioning the court.

Juvenile records would continue to be available for the purpose of prosecuting adults with a juvenile record.

A committee vote on the bill has not yet been scheduled.