The Legal Process for Limiting or Preventing Access to Your Juvenile Records
It’s well-documented that our brains do not fully mature until we are in our mid-20s. As a consequence, we may engage in behaviors without fully considering all the consequences. For some of us, that unfortunately leads to a juvenile record. We then grow up and become good citizens, but our youthful mistakes can continue to haunt us. How can we make those juvenile records go away? Two possible ways are to have the records expunged or sealed. (In some states, expungement is called “expunction.”) Is there a difference between having a juvenile record expunged versus having it sealed?
Expunging and Sealing Records—Are They the Same?
No. When you successfully expunge a juvenile record, it is erased from the system and no longer exists. A sealed record still exists, but limits are placed on who may access it.
Aren’t Juvenile Records Confidential? Why Do I Need to Have the Record Expunged or Sealed?
Juvenile court records and proceedings are considered confidential, even if they have not been formally sealed. However, the fact that they are confidential does not prevent individuals within the agencies holding them from obtaining access to them. For example, if a police department has an unsealed juvenile record, anyone within that department can access the record. Even if a record is sealed, it can become available to police, prosecutors, and probation officers pursuant to a court order.
Common Reasons for Expunging or Sealing a Juvenile Record
Even though juvenile court files are confidential, your records may still be accessible to licensing agencies, landlords, employers, and educational institutions. However, expunction or sealing of a juvenile record can allow you opportunities that may be denied otherwise. If you have a juvenile record expunged, you can truthfully and legally state on any type of application that you were never arrested or found to be delinquent for the expunged offense. Sealing a juvenile record, as opposed to expunging the record, may or may not allow that, depending on the applicable state law.
Are There Instances Where Juvenile Records Are Automatically Sealed?
Some states automatically seal a juvenile record when the offender reaches a specific age. Typically, though, the automatic sealing of juvenile records applies only to low-level offenses. In most cases, for a record to qualify for automatic sealing, the offender must not have committed any subsequent offenses. Also, the offender may be required to participate in a diversionary program.
Criteria Affecting Whether a Court Will Expunge or Seal a Juvenile Record
- Age—Most states require a person to be at least 18 years of age to seek expungement or sealing of a juvenile record (though some states set the age at 19 or 21).
- When the offense was committed—Most states prohibit expungement unless the offender has maintained a clean record for a certain number of years. Other state laws impose a waiting period that doesn’t start until the juvenile has completed their sentence or probation time.
- Repeat Offender—In most states, a juvenile record may not be expunged if the offender has committed subsequent offenses.
- Seriousness of the Offense—Most states have laws prohibiting expungement of juvenile records relating to offenses that would be considered felonies if committed by an adult. Some states also have laws prohibiting expungement of records relating to DUI, sex offenses, or violent crimes.
Common Misconceptions about Expunging Juvenile Records
There are many old wives’ tales that continue to circulate about access and availability of juvenile records after an offender becomes an adult:
- Juvenile records do not automatically disappear when you become a legal adult—Juvenile court proceedings in all states are subject to strict rules regarding confidentiality, but only a handful actually seal juvenile records when a person reaches the age of majority. Some states require expungement to be initiated by the juvenile court or by a prosecutor or probation officer. Some states permit expungement without a showing of rehabilitation, but a number of states make such a showing prerequisite to expungement.
- Expunging or sealing juvenile court records does not necessarily limit access to police records—It does in some states but not all. Police records may contain photographs, DNA, fingerprints, and other personal information.
- Not all juvenile court records are confidential—At least 33 states allow schools some degree of access to juvenile court records. And several states allow access to juvenile records involving felonies and other serious offenses, especially those committed by older youths.