Former juvenile offenders may be able to get a fresh start of sorts by filing a petition in court seeking expungement (sealing) of a juvenile court conviction. ("Expunge" and "seal" are used interchangeably here, but note that some states distinguish between expunging and sealing records.)
Expungement typically allows offenders to tell prospective employers, landlords, licensing agencies, and others that they have never been arrested or convicted. However, expungement does not eliminate all the consequences of a juvenile court conviction. For example, even an expunged conviction can serve as a strike that produces harsher punishment under a state's Three Strikes statute.
There are many advantages to sealing your juvenile records. Read on for general information about which juvenile records may be sealed, how to have them sealed, and what it means once those records are sealed. For state-specific information, see Expunging or Sealing a Juvenile Court Record.
The kinds of juvenile records that are eligible for sealing vary from state to state. Often, whether a record can be sealed depends on the following.
Age. The person seeking the sealing must be an adult. In some states, this means the person making the request must be at least 18 years old.
When the offense was committed. Often, a juvenile record cannot be sealed until some period of time has passed. One state might provide that you have to wait 30 days after your 18th birthday or the end of some kind of official supervision; another state might require that you wait three years from the date your commitment or supervision ended. (Different rules typically apply when the defenant wasn't adjudicated guilty.)
Type of juvenile offense. Some states limit the types of offenses that can be expunged from a juvenile record. Some states don't allow people to expunge serious juvenile offenses, such as a violation that would be a felony in adult criminal court.
Subsequent arrests or convictions. In many states, if the person asking for expungement of a juvenile record also had later criminal arrests or convictions as an adult, the request to seal the juvenile record will be denied.
Some states automatically seal certain types of juvenile records after the offender reaches a certain age. In some jurisdictions, the records won't be sealed unless the offender files an official request with the court. Again, the process varies by state, a former offender might be required to:
File a petition. The former offender (sometimes called the "petitioner") files a petition–perhaps with the juvenile court clerk in the county where the offense occurred–asking the court to seal the petitioner's juvenile record. Most courts have preprinted forms, with instructions, that you can fill out.
Pay a fee. In most jurisdictions, the petitioner pays a fee when he or she files the petition asking that a juvenile record be sealed.
If the court approves the petition and seals the juvenile records, the juvenile court proceedings are treated in many respects as if they never occurred. In many states, this means that if you're asked whether you have a criminal or juvenile offense history, you can legally say no.
The sealing is not absolute, however. In certain circumstances, the expunged juvenile record may be accessible. For example, if you apply for a job with a law enforcement agency, your record might be visible to that agency when they run a background check on you. Or if your juvenile record contains a vehicle-related violation, an insurance company might be able to access a record of that offense when you apply for car insurance. Finally, juvenile offenses that are expunged from a record often may still be used to increase the severity of a sentence that's handed down after a later offense as a juvenile or adult.
For complete analysis of the applicable law and your situation, consult a lawyer with experience in sealing or expunging juvenile records. An experienced attorney will be able to guide you with regard to records of detention, arrest, and court proceedings. Such a lawyer should be able to handle the process for you and explain the precise effect of sealing or expungement.