The primary goal of the juvenile justice system is to rehabilitate a juvenile, rather than to punish them. This distinguishes juvenile courts from adult criminal courts and results in different rules for court records. To shield juveniles from a social and professional stigma, these records usually are kept confidential, whereas records in adult criminal courts are public. In most situations, access to these records is limited to the parents or guardians of the juvenile, law enforcement, school authorities, and attorneys for the juvenile or government agencies. Child protective services also may be able to view the records. Sometimes a research organization can get permission to view them.
Even someone who is in one of the groups above may need to seek a formal court order permitting access to the records. The rules for access depend on the state. Access involves not only reviewing the records but also potentially making copies of them.
Exceptions for Public Access
Unfortunately, juvenile crime has started to become both more widespread and more serious in recent years. This may trigger the safety interests of the community and a right to know about the dangers posed by a juvenile. Legislatures and courts may need to balance the public right to know against the juvenile’s right to privacy, which can be vital to their rehabilitation. If parts of a case file need to be released for public access, a court may order that certain private information in the file be redacted (struck out). Sometimes this will include the juvenile’s name.
California and some other states give law enforcement more discretion in determining whether to release a juvenile’s identifying information. They may be able to work around the confidentiality rule for juveniles who have committed violent felonies, for example, especially if they are at least a certain age. A general trend in many states toward getting tougher on juvenile crime may mean that these exceptions will become more prevalent.
Exceptions for Court Proceedings
If a juvenile is a witness in a court proceeding, the confidentiality of their juvenile records may be broken. Under the Confrontation Clause of the U.S. Constitution, a defendant has a right to confront someone who is accusing them of a crime. They also have a right to cross-examine an accuser and try to establish a bias that might undermine the credibility of the accuser. As part of this effort, the defendant may be granted access to the juvenile’s record so that they can use parts of it as evidence. This may help them show that the juvenile has a reason to lie to help the prosecution. For example, perhaps the juvenile agreed to testify in exchange for receiving lesser penalties in juvenile court.
Sometimes the defendant can introduce this type of evidence only if the juvenile committed a serious offense. Also, the court may limit the exposure of juvenile court records to information that is directly related to the current case.
If an adult criminal defendant has a juvenile criminal record, this may play a role in sentencing if they are convicted as an adult. A state may allow a judge to take the defendant’s juvenile criminal history into account, especially if the juvenile crime was violent. As with situations in which the juvenile is a witness, the rules vary by state and may permit only limited exposure of the juvenile record.