Former juvenile offenders might be able to get a fresh start by expunging or sealing their juvenile court records. Expungement typically allows juvenile offenders to legally tell prospective employers, landlords, colleges, licensing agencies, and others that they've never been arrested or adjudicated delinquent. However, expungement doesn't usually eliminate all the consequences of a juvenile court record. For example, even an expunged record may be used in some cases to increase the punishment for later adult convictions.
Overall, though, there can be 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.
*This article uses the terms "expunge" and "seal" interchangeably, but note that some states distinguish between expunging and sealing records.
Despite what many believe, a juvenile record can stay with you long after becoming an adult. And it might be more accessible to the public than you would think.
For the most part, no. Only a few states will automatically seal or expunge a juvenile record once the juvenile turns a certain age (usually 19 or older) or when the case is over. But, even in these states, not all juvenile records qualify for automatic expungement. It's common for states to exclude violent felonies and sex offenses from eligibility for sealing or to require a juvenile to have a clean record for a set number of years.
Many states make juvenile records confidential and not accessible to the public—but many exceptions exist. For instance, some states allow public access to felony-level records where the juvenile could have been charged as an adult. You might also find that confidentiality has its limits. The legal definition of "confidential" in your state might restrict the general public from viewing the record but allow employers, landlords, colleges, banks, and other agencies to request access for background checks.
State sealing and expungement laws vary greatly when it comes to both adult and juvenile records. But, generally speaking, no state's laws appear to automatically wipe clean all juvenile records based only on age and no other eligibility criteria. Most states have different rules based on case disposition, offense level, subsequent offenses, and so on.
In some states, automatic sealing might apply only to misdemeanor records or a limited list of low-level felonies. Other states might require the former offender to have a clean record for two, three, or even 10 years before their juvenile record can be sealed. Other common criteria include sealing only records where a juvenile completed diversion and had all charges dismissed or where the court dismissed the case.
With the above limitations in mind, here are a few states that allow some type of automatic sealing for eligible (but not all) juvenile records: Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Rhode Island, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia (based on data from the Collateral Consequences Resource Center (2022)).
Unfortunately, not even the term "automatic" has the same meaning in every state. In fact, only a handful of states have a truly automated system up and running at a statewide level (and these systems might only apply to adult convictions).
More often, the law provides that the court "shall" seal the record once the case ends or a juvenile turns a certain age and has no subsequent adjudications or convictions. This "automatic" process might rely on individual judges to track and seal records in their cases or require each court's record-keeping system to develop its own processes—both of which are prone to errors. For this reason, it's always a good idea to check your record and see if it's actually sealed.
If your juvenile record doesn't qualify for automatic sealing, you might be able to ask the court to seal your record. While the process varies by state, many jurisdictions have a petition process that requires the former offender to:
Many states have simplified the petition process so individuals can complete the paperwork without a lawyer. Check the court's website to see if instructions and the petition are available online.
Before filling out the petition, you need to find out if your record is eligible for sealing. Each state has different eligibility requirements. Below are common criteria that states use.
Age 18+. 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.
Wait period after offense. 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 defendant 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 juvenile traffic offenses, DUIs, or violations that would be a felony in adult criminal court.
Subsequent arrests or convictions. In many states, a judge will deny an expungement request if the person had later criminal arrests or convictions as an adult.
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 you can legally say "no" if asked whether you have a criminal or juvenile record. Clearing your record can open the door to getting a job, being accepted to college, or being approved for a loan or apartment. Having a productive life with more opportunities helps many people stay away from crime.
However, it's important to know that sealing a record won't keep it from everyone. 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. And, 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.
A good place to begin the search for your juvenile record is at the clerks or records office of the juvenile court where the case was heard. Before you head there, go online to the court's website. Some courts have detailed explanations of how to get your records sealed, starting with how to find them. You might need to call the records office to get some more information. Other agencies might also hold some of your records, such as the police department or juvenile probation. Again, head online to their websites to see what you can learn and make some phone calls.
If the process feels overwhelming, you can hire a lawyer to do the work for you. This will come at a cost, but it can be worthwhile. A lawyer will conduct a thorough search and navigate the judicial system for you. Your lawyer can also explain the precise effect of sealing or expungement in your state.
In many areas of the country, there are nonprofit organizations that focus on record sealing. They might assist you for free or provide low-cost services. Their websites are usually great sources of information. A local law school might also have clinics with law students who assist people in searching for their records, filling out paperwork, and preparing for court hearings. Try running searches for "expungement clinics," "how to seal/expunge a criminal record," or "second-chance organizations" in your area.