To a much greater extent than 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—and the number of exceptions may surprise you. (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 are generally given access to juvenile criminal records are:
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. While these individuals can typically access the records, most state laws prohibit them from disseminating the records to others.
Sometimes. It depends greatly on the state where the records are held. Historically, states heavily guarded the confidentiality of juvenile court records for the purposes of encouraging rehabilitation. But political climates change, and as they do, laws often change with them. During the tough-on-crime era, a number of states decreased confidentiality protections for juvenile records. While many states are again moving toward keeping juvenile records sealed from public view, the tough-on-crime laws remain in place in many states. In these states, it may be possible for colleges, employers, loan providers, military recruiters, and others to ask for and receive information regarding juvenile records.
Often, yes. Juvenile criminal records may come out in court during trials where the juvenile is a witness and at sentencing hearings.
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.)
Exceptions to the confidentiality of juvenile records vary across the states and from state to federal court. Laws and procedures can also change. For a more comprehensive overview of juvenile-record confidentiality, consult a local 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.
You can also check out the Juvenile Law Center's National Scorecard for information on state laws regarding the confidentiality of juvenile records.