Yesterday, the State Senate passed a bill that would reform several different aspects of the juvenile justice system, with the goal of reducing children’s interactions with the court system, making those interactions more humane, and enabling them to move on from youthful mistakes and become productive adult members of society. The bill, S. 2417, would have to be passed by the State House in the next few weeks and get the Governor’s approval to become law, but it includes a number of welcome reforms.
One of the most consequential changes, which commentators have called for repeatedly, is to allow records of juvenile crimes to be expunged. Current law in Massachusetts permits some criminal records, including juvenile records, to be sealed after a waiting period of several years, meaning that the public and most employers would not be able to access those records. However, law enforcement, courts, and schools can still access sealed records for certain purposes. What is currently nearly nonexistent under Massachusetts law, in contrast, is expungement – total deletion of a record so that nobody would ever know that it existed, not employers, not law enforcement, and not the courts. Many states automatically expunge juvenile court records once an individual reaches a certain age, so that bad decisions during adolescence do not follow children into adulthood and prevent them from being admitted to schools or getting jobs. These states recognize that it is counterproductive to maintain the stigma of a criminal record on individuals who have learned from their mistakes and are trying to get back on the right track. People who try and fail to make a living by legitimate means may resort to illegal conduct to make ends meet.