Washington State Allows Third Parties To Brand Youthful Offenders For Life At The Low, Low Price Of Only 69? A Record
from the the-scarlet-letter-meets-columbia-house dept
Being charged with a crime as a juvenile isn’t supposed to haunt you for the rest of your life. In most cases, juvenile offenders can have their records sealed once they hit adulthood (18-21, depending on state law). There are some exceptions, varying from state to state — certain felonies and most sex offenses are not allowed to be sealed.
Unfortunately for juvenile offenders in the state of Washington, these criminal records can haunt them well into adulthood, thanks to the state’s willingness to trade kids’ futures for cash.
While it’s true that records can be sealed or expunged when someone turns 18, it’s often too late in Washington.
Companies have contractual agreements with the state to be able to gather felony records in a mass download. Those companies then make the information available on the Internet. Landlords, employers and educational institutions can do a simple search and find the information.
Offenses committed by juveniles are being given a chance to live on well past their supposed expiration date. In these states, a youthful offender now has a chance to be punished for his or her mistake for years to come. And this “opportunity” to become a lifelong offender has a bargain basement price tag.
“About 27,500 records a year are sold and we only make $19,000 as a state in revenue off of it, so we’re talking about 69 cents per name for a kid’s future,” [Barry Stober, executive assistant of the Washington State Commission on African American Affairs] says.
It’s tough to turn your life around when employers running background checks are greeted with offenses that should have been sealed or expunged years ago. Stober relates the story of a teen arrested for joyriding who acquired his GED while spending two years in detention only to find himself turned down for financial aid and unable to get a job (despite earning a degree) thanks to being permanently marked a felon by background check companies.
Not only does this distribution hurt the former offenders, it hurts the state itself. As Scott Greenfield points out, treating juvenile records as sellable goods does long term damage to everyone involved.
When “checking out” a potential employee, tenant, student, the effort stops dead at the word “felon,” if not at the fact that the person has a criminal record at all. There are too many young people looking for jobs, apartments, seats in college to spend too much time with the bad seeds. Nobody is going to make the effort to investigate the underlying offense, the circumstances, the person behind the crime. If there’s a crime, there is another kid waiting behind him without a record.
This gives rise to a permanent underclass that will have constant problems getting an education, a job, a home, all for some dumb move made as a kid. Maybe even for something that should never have resulted in a conviction at all, but for lack of parental love and assistance, an assembly-line system and even judges looking to make their own buck off them. But once it’s sold to some vulture business, it follows them forever. All for about 69¢ per child.
Washington is stacking the deck against its own future. Recidivism is always going to be an issue, but short-sighted moves like this make this behavior almost inevitable. A young adult who can’t get a decent job or receive financial aid is going to look elsewhere for opportunity. If a life of crime seems to be the path of least resistance, the state has to take some of the blame for the outcome.
Stober’s trying to fix this law and has started a Change.org petition aimed at stopping the sale and distribution of juvenile records. At the very least, Washington should limit what purchasers can do with the data, like Kentucky has done, limiting use to “evaluation, research or statistical activities” and requiring the purchasing entity to sign an agreement stating the information won’t be abused. (Michigan can sell this data, although there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that it has. There’s currently nothing on the books prohibiting it from doing so. Juvenile arrest records are also available via a FOIA request.)
Better yet, Washington should just stop the selling of data altogether. It’s one thing to make records available publicly on adult offenders. It’s quite another to allow third parties to continue punishing former juvenile offenders for actions the state has effectively declared “never happened.”