The guiding principle behind the juvenile justice system is to help young people take responsibility for their actions and learn from their mistakes so that they can put the past behind them. In fact, research shows that most young offenders effectively outgrow risky behavior and don’t commit crimes as adults. But a new report from the Muskie School of Public Service finds that for many young Mainers who have been in contact with the juvenile justice system, their past follows them well into adulthood, preventing them from realizing their full potential. These unintended “collateral consequences” can have a lasting impact on a young person’s life. Along with other partners, the John T. Gorman Foundation supported the report as part of our work to help more vulnerable Maine youth successfully transition to adulthood.
Through interviews and data, the researchers behind the report convincingly demonstrate the extent of these consequences. While many of us might believe that offenses committed while still a minor disappear from an individual’s record once they legally become an adult, the report points out that, on the contrary, in Maine, “juvenile records are not automatically sealed at any age.” Additionally, the authors write, “Maine does not have an option for expunging juvenile records… Records will not go away by themselves.” While there is a process that an individual can initiate to seal their juvenile record, it’s costly, complicated, and requires both legal assistance and an in-person visit to the courthouse to complete.
Too many youth don’t have the right relationships and resources to navigate this process, especially those facing special challenges such as young people in foster care or homeless youth. Others may simply lack the awareness that it’s necessary to do so. Consequently, having a juvenile record can be a detriment when it comes to a young person’s pursuit of housing, employment, higher education, and professional licensing. The application processes for all of these require a disclosure about previous criminal background, and while guidance varies about whether or not applicants must divulge information about events that occurred while still a minor, the report’s authors provide multiple stories of young Mainers who have faced obstacles on their path to independence and financial security due to their juvenile record.
How can we more effectively help youths move beyond their past behavior? The report’s authors provide several ways forward for Maine, one of which is also recommended by the American Bar Association – expungement. Others include computerizing the electronic court records system, helping young people and their families better understand the juvenile justice process, and revising the state’s code to allow for automatic sealing of juvenile records after a given period of time or under certain conditions.