A teenager with an arrest record is worth 69 cents to the state of Washington.
That’s how much the state makes, per individual, for selling juvenile offenders’ records to companies that do background checks.
Washington is one of eight states that make juvenile records public, and one of only three states that sell the information.
After being open to public scrutiny for the past 35 years, most juvenile offender records would be sealed under a bill passed unanimously in the state House and now under consideration in the Senate.
“Sometimes, because their brains aren’t fully formed, sometimes kids do really dumb things,” says State Representative Maureen Walsh, speaking at a hearing on a bill to protect juvenile crime records.
Examples of those “dumb things” are plentiful.
“I was talking with a girl who has a juvenile record for something that happened in her house when she was a teen,” says Representative Ruth Kagi. “It was a very violent household and she spat at her father. Her father called the police and she was charged with assault. She is now finding that that is a real barrier for her to get a job as a 20-year-old.”
“I met a young man who was 16 years old and he stole his mother’s car. He wanted to go on a joy ride with his friends around town. Mom called the police and said, ‘Can you find my kid, scare him, and bring him home because I don’t want this happening again?’ The police found her son and arrested him for auto theft and he spent two years in a juvenile prison. While he was in prison, he was able to get his GED and his associate’s degree,” says Bailey Stober, executive assistant of the Washington State Commission on African American Affairs.
When the young man started applying to private colleges, he couldn’t get financial aid because of the felony on his record.
He finally got into a college without financial aid. He now has a bachelor’s degree in communications yet can’t get a job or an apartment because his juvenile record lists him as a felon.
“This is a one-time screw up. Should he have to pay a life sentence for it? I think the answer is no,” says Stober, who launched a Change.org petition to stop the sale and distribution of juvenile criminal records.
In selling juvenile records, Stober says we’re trading a young person’s life for pennies.
“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,” he says.
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.
While it’s true that records can be sealed or expunged when someone turns 18, it’s often too late in Washington.
“Within days of your 18th birthday, we sell those records online. So you can get your record sealed all you want to. We’ve already sold your record and it’s online,” Stober says. “Sealing it does nothing. When those employers, apartments and landlords go to do the records checks, they’re pulling what’s on the Internet, not what the state has sealed or hasn’t sealed.”
The issue is about doing “what’s right” for the young people, he says, but also about helping the state’s economy.
“If a job comes open, a juvenile offender from California can apply for that job and get it because their record is sealed. But a juvenile offender from Washington isn’t going to be able to get that job because their record is open,” says Stober. “If we want to be more economically competitive we need to allow the kids in our state to get some of these jobs so they can pay taxes and pay for other services.”
The Washington Coalition for Open Government opposes changing the juvenile records law, saying that would prevent oversight of the juvenile court system.
Under the proposed legislation, some juvenile offender records would remain public – cases of serious violent crimes, serious sex offenses, first-degree arson, first-degree conspiracy to commit arson, second-degree assault of a child, second-degree kidnapping, leading organized crime and first-degree malicious placement of an explosive.
Even with the change, judges and law enforcement would have access to complete records. Juvenile records would also be available for the purpose of prosecuting adults with a juvenile record.
“We want the public to know if they have an arsonist or attempted murder living next door,” Stober says. “What we’re talking about is shoplifting when you’re 12 or getting into a fistfight when you’re in junior high these things shouldn’t stay with you for the rest of your life.”
By LINDA THOMAS