To a much greater extent that its adult counterpart, the juvenile criminal justice system focuses on rehabilitation and guards against the stigma of being labeled a criminal. To that end, juvenile criminal records are generally confidential. But there are exceptions to confidentiality. (In re Jeffrey T., 140 Cal.App.4th 1015 (2006).)
(To learn more about juvenile court proceedings, which are usually considered civil rather than criminal, see Juvenile Court: An Overview.)
Among the people and entities who may be given access to juvenile criminal records are:
- parents and legal guardians
- juveniles’ attorneys
- school officials
- law enforcement agencies
- federal, state, and city attorneys
- research organizations, and
- child protective agencies.
Depending upon the state, the above individuals and entities may or may not need court orders in order to inspect, receive, or copy juvenile case files.
Under certain circumstances, juvenile criminal records may even be accessible to the general public. As juvenile crime has increased and become more violent, policy makers have had to balance between competing interests: the interests of the community and juveniles’ privacy.
Some courts may allow public access to juvenile delinquency records when “the public’s right to know and the strong interests of the victims outweigh any concern about stigmatizing the minor or endangering his chances of rehabilitation.” (U.S. v. L.M., 425 F.Supp.2d 948 (N.D. Iowa 2006).) However, agencies may have to redact sensitive information about minors in such situations, including their names.
Some states have laws that allow law enforcement agencies to release identifying information under certain circumstances. In California, for example, law enforcement agencies have some discretion to release the names of juveniles accused of crimes that are classified as serious or violent. (Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code §§ 827.2, 827.5, 827.6.) And sealing and destruction of juvenile records aren't allowed for those 14 or older who have committed such offenses. (Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code § 781.) The intent behind the prohibition against record sealing and destruction in California is to hold youthful offenders more accountable for their behavior. (In re Jeffrey T., supra.)
Juvenile criminal records may come out in court during trials where the juvenile is a witness and at sentencing hearings.
Right to confront
Criminal defendants have a constitutional right to confront their accusers. In part, the right of confrontation allows a defendant to introduce evidence of a witness’s motive to lie. If a witness testifying against a defendant is a juvenile, the defendant may be able to access the juvenile’s criminal record and at trial introduce evidence relating to it. For instance, the criminal record may show that the juvenile has a motive to lie in exchange for leniency. However, the defense typically needs to establish that the juvenile committed serious acts of delinquency that are related to the juvenile’s testimony. Moreover, prior to disclosing a juvenile’s records, courts scrutinize them to make sure to reveal only relevant information. (For information on a defendant’s right to information, see Discovery. Also see Investigating a Criminal Case.)
Some states authorize courts to consider the juvenile offenses of adult criminal defendants during sentencing hearings relating to later crimes. States may limit the use of juvenile records in this context—for example, allowing consideration of violent juvenile offenses only. (For more on factors that increase sentences, see Aggravating Circumstances in Sentencing.)
Seek Expert Guidance
Exceptions to the confidentiality of juvenile records vary across the states and from state to federal court, and depend on the circumstances. For a more comprehensive overview of juvenile-record confidentiality, consult an attorney experienced in juvenile law. Consult such a lawyer if you have concerns about the privacy of particular records or want to know whether you can access them.