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States Move To Open Juvenile Court Records

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It used to be that legal records about juvenile offenders were among the most confidential of documents.

Delinquent youngsters could still turn themselves around, the thinking went, so their mistakes should not become public information to shadow them for the rest of their lives.

But in an increasing number of states, the public has gained access to information about juvenile offenders, reporters may broadcast their names and faces on the evening news, and teachers may be told about charges of wrongdoing--not just findings of delinquency--made against the teenagers sitting in their classes.

Over the past 15 years, the number of states that have laws allowing for some public access to juvenile court records has increased dramatically.

A 1980 analysis by the Pittsburgh-based National Center for Juvenile Justice found that six states provided such access. When they did the same analysis last year, officials at the center, which is the research arm of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, found that 25 states did so. (See related story.)

And in the legislative sessions concluded this spring, at least one state--Indiana--joined the list, and one--Utah--rejoined it, according to the center.

Getting Tough

This is all part of the booming "get tough" attitude toward youths who tangle with the law, or might be tempted to.

Cities are imposing curfews on juveniles, more young people are being tried as adults, and Congress last year passed legislation requiring states to expel for one year students found with guns in school.

Some of these actions stem from fear about juvenile crime. The rate of homicides by adolescents has more than doubled since 1988, largely because of increased use of handguns, experts say. However, the overall proportion of violent crimes for which a juvenile is arrested has been relatively steady since 1965.

Some new laws on juvenile crime are being driven by frustration with what is seen as an ineffective juvenile-justice system that has merely slapped the wrists of repeat offenders, observers say. Also at play is the sense that a system designed to protect young joy-riders and shoplifters should not protect murderers.

Held Accountable

Last year's legislative season was a busy one for juvenile justice: At least 11 states passed laws authorizing public access to juvenile records or notice to schools of offenses by juveniles, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In 1994, for example, Kansas provided that records be open for inspection for all juveniles who were 14 or older at the time of their offenses, and Mississippi required the release to the public of a juvenile's identity in cases in which the juvenile has twice been found delinquent for a felony or illegal gun possession.

Holding juveniles more accountable for their actions is part of the goal, said Rep. Elvin Martinez of the Florida legislature.

Mr. Martinez, the chairman of the House criminal-justice committee there, was an author of the 1994 state law that authorizes police to release for publication the name, photograph, and other identifying information for any minor charged with a felony or who has committed three misdemeanors.

"We have changed public policy of the state of Florida," he said, "from whatever is in the best interests of the child to public safety first."

"The public has a right to know," Mr. Martinez, a Democrat, continued, "whether their neighbor or the children they're sending their children to school with have had any contact with the law."

If the prospect of having children's pictures on the evening news is a deterrent to the delinquents or their parents, so much the better, Mr. Martinez said.

Notice of Charges

One of the most dramatic changes yet in opening access to the court records of juveniles will take effect next month in Virginia.

Currently, a Virginia judge may release the identity of a juvenile if the public interest requires it and if the youth has been found to be delinquent for the most serious classes of felonies as well as such crimes as robbery and burglary. A judge also has the option to make public a charge of a serious crime against a juvenile if the juvenile has become a fugitive.

But as of July 1, a judge may release the name, age, and address of any juvenile age 14 or older who is charged with an act of violence when it serves the public interest. Such acts include murder, voluntary manslaughter, kidnapping, carjacking, burglary, and criminal sexual assault.

In a similarly sweeping manner, the state has changed the circumstances under which it notifies schools about a juvenile's court status.

The juvenile court currently must notify the superintendent of the district in which a youth attends school if the student has been found to be delinquent for certain crimes.

But as of July 1, a juvenile-court officer must notify the superintendent if a student has been charged with any of the specified acts of violence, as well as arson, unlawful possession or use of a weapon, possession of a controlled substance, and possession of marijuana.

'Still the Suspicion'

The new Virginia law also allows the superintendent, if he believes the safety of others at a school is an issue, to disclose to a principal that a student has been charged with a crime and the nature of that crime.

The principal, in turn, is allowed to inform the student's classmates or school personnel who have contact with the student.

Robert Shepherd, a law professor at the University of Richmond, said the law casts too wide a net in the interest of public safety. "There has not yet been an adjudication of guilt, and the presumption of innocence does exist," Mr. Shepherd said.

He said that notifying a school of a charge made against a student raises many concerns.

"You can't unring the bell," he said. "If the schools have been advised that this kid has been charged, and he's [later] acquitted, there's still the suspicion that is attached to the juvenile."

"Once you start treating someone differently in a school setting, it has an impact on how that person views himself or herself," Mr. Shepherd added. "What you're doing is basically heightening all the risk factors" that lead to delinquent behavior.

If a young person is a threat to the community, that information may be made public, he said, but it probably is best to do so after he or she is convicted.

If the charge against a juvenile is serious enough, the offender will likely be locked up while awaiting consideration of his case--and thus is not a threat to the school, Mr. Shepherd said.

Other experts said the case of a juvenile charged with a violent felony probably would be handled in an adult court and thus would be subject to the same public-disclosure rules as adults.

(See Education Association, defended the new law, arguing that it will not only make schools safer but also will allow school officials to pinpoint a student who may need counseling.

Mr. Jones said he did not think that school officials would treat accused juveniles unfairly but rather would help them change.

Other states have said schools have a right to know about students' records, too. But in both California and Wisconsin, the student must have been found by a court to have committed certain crimes.

This year in Indiana, meanwhile, the legislature made some big changes in the availability of information about juveniles accused of violating the law.

For juveniles charged with murder and other crimes that would be felonies if committed by an adult, all proceedings and legal records are to be open to the public. Records also are open for those youths who are at least 12 and who are alleged to have committed two unrelated acts that would be misdemeanors if committed by an adult. For children under 12, records will be open if they are charged with five unrelated acts that would be considered misdemeanors. But psychological-evaluation reports on those minors will not be available.

Stigma and Scapegoats

The Indiana legislature decided that the stigma of open records would not be all that great, according to Richard P. Good, the executive director of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council. In large cities, little attention would be paid to individual cases, he said, and in small towns, many people would already know by word of mouth.

"I don't think you're going to bruise that many kids" by making such information public, Mr. Good said.

Because the juvenile-justice system is set up with many checks and balances, "by the time you file a petition alleging an act of delinquency, you've gone through several opportunities for the case to be disposed of in an informal manner," he said.

Yet it remains uncertain whether these new get-tough laws will have a deterrent effect.

"Nobody knows what in this field works and what doesn't," Mr. Good said.

Jim Miller, the executive director of the Indiana Juvenile Justice Task Force, an independent youth-advocacy group, said that the idea of widespread violent crime committed by juveniles has been "oversold" and that juvenile offenders have become something of a scapegoat.

His group opposed some aspects of the Indiana legislation because "we felt that an easy, panacean approach to modeling the juvenile-justice system after the adult system doesn't work."

While criticism is plentiful about the efficacy of the juvenile system, Mr. Miller said, "I don't hear the same questions asked in the same way [about] how effective is the adult system."

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