New rules that were recently approved and then halted by the Washington Supreme Court would make significant changes to how juvenile defendants appear in court records statewide. One of the proposed rules would require the use of a juvenile defendant’s initials in place of their name in court records and related legal documents. The other proposal would prohibit adding those records to online databases.
The changes were proposed by the Washington State Office of Public Defense and the Minority and Justice Commission in the interest of giving people who wound up in the legal system as juveniles the chance to live a normal adult life without running into obstacles in housing, employment, and other situations where background checks may come into play.
The Washington Supreme Court approved the new requirements a few weeks ago, but abruptly suspended them before implementation after a range of groups raised concerns about operational feasibility, judicial transparency, mistaken identity, and unintended consequences.
The backlash came from organizations representing county clerks, news organizations, police officers, and prosecutors. Other filed comments in support of the changes.
The future of the policy change is unclear, but will likely be determined by a court rules committee. The chief justice issued an order stating the new policy was delayed pending further action of the court, but five of the nine justices issued a separate dissent declaring that the policy was suspended pending further order of the court.
Supporters of the change have argued that the current system allows even sealed records of juvenile offenses to resurface during background checks decades later.
Larry Jefferson, Director of the Washington State Office of Public Defense, said there are a number of reasons why the current system isn’t working as intended and ripe for reform.
“My strongest argument is the people who live in the state of Washington. And when I talk about people, I’m talking about young people, young people that didn’t get to decide who their parents were, where they were born, whether their community was redlined or not, and so these folks or kids have gone through our juvenile justice system, some of them in foster care, some of them not, and they were convicted of offenses. And then as they’ve gotten out of that system, they wanted to do things that all adults want to do. They want to get a job, they want to get an education, and they want to support their family. And what we’re finding is that they weren’t able to do those things. They weren’t able to ask for a raise because they didn’t want another background check to be done,” said Jefferson.
“One of the things about the rules that were proposed, one of them is a rule that was already being done by the courts and that was just not disseminating the information over the internet. So the change of the rule was just to codify that, so that these data mining companies can’t get the information, can’t get this information that could be used against someone for the rest of their life when they’re a law abiding citizen.”
He noted that some courts have already adopted an initials only policy for the relevant category of records.
“I’ve got an example of it just right here. This is a recent court opinion from the Supreme Court for May 19th and what you’ll see in the opinion is that it just uses the initials of the juveniles who were involved in this particular case. That’s all we’re asking for, to put on court documents in the state of Washington, the initials. What we’ve got with this case is, it’s in the public, it’s being talked about, both sides can refer to this document and it can go wherever it wants to go. It just won’t have the juvenile’s name on it. And that’s what we want to do on court documents,” said Jefferson. “We know that when documents get to the internet, they stay there forever. And we want to reduce that.”
“So we want people to go through the system and we want them to be rehabilitated. That’s the goal for juveniles. If we hold this against them for the rest of their life, because this stuff gets on the internet, they can’t become rehabilitated. They can’t support their families,” said Jefferson.
Executive Director of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys Russ Brown weighed in on the concerns raised by various groups that are either directly or indirectly involved in accessing court records on a regular basis.
“I think we were prepared to implement the rule and as it became closer, and I think the rule was adopted, it was highlighted to us some of the complications of adopting that rule. It became almost impractical or impossible to implement because of the various systems that are required,” said Brown. “We could certainly file a case, as Mr. Jefferson has here, with initials, but when that goes into the systems on the county level, being able to track adopt those records and make sure that those track with other records or that that would be something that would be usable for defense counsel or prosecutors at a later time, simply using initials became something that just quickly became clear that wasn’t possible.”
“I agree with Mr. Jefferson in a couple of respects that the juvenile system is about rehabilitation. Washington, through the legislature, has set a system where juvenile records are sealed. There’s a sealing that occurs at 18 for the vast majority of cases and then there’s a potential to seal additional records at a future time. So there is a process already in place to protect these records and they’re treated differently than any other record in the court system. So that, that is in place. I think this court rule as we started to go through it, it has a feel that is a much more policy, much more, it involves a lot of people. For example, the state patrol, it involves you know, there were the juvenile court administrators who were concerned about it, the judges were concerned about it, both superior, district, and municipal courts, the state patrol, the sheriffs, chiefs of police, you know, newspapers and having access to information, all of these different parts of the system and weighing this balance between a system that takes constitutional protections for having things done in public, making sure that justice is done in public, and on the other hand, making sure that we can protect the particular records for the same reasons that Mr. Jefferson is talking about.”
“So, you know, that’s the tension here. And I think from our perspective, when the rule, when we started to try to figure out how to make the rule work, it just became clear that it would effectively make things go completely dark, where you wouldn’t be able to track, you wouldn’t be able to find that information, you wouldn’t be able to use it for those of us who are working in the system and and for others who need that access.”
“My response to that is that’s a functionality issue and not a policy issue. So I think with what Russ is talking about is we agreed on basically the policy behind this. And what we’re trying to work out is the functionality,” said Jefferson. “Could that take six months to do? Hey, could it take two years to do? I don’t care how long it takes to do it. I just care that we do it so that we protect folks in our community who have been convicted of offenses and now they’re leading great lives.”