Damaging information made public in a pending youthful offender case can derail a teenager’s potential for life, but a simple legislative fix could help keep young people on track. That’s why Youth Represent stepped beyond its primary mission as a nonprofit legal services provider to work with Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell on legislation that will allow information about youthful offender cases to stay private until the final disposition in the case.
There are many reasons to give a young person accused of a crime – even a serious crime – a second chance. Emerging neuroscience research has pinpointed differences between adult and adolescent brains that make it harder for teenagers to exercise self-control. Courts have recognized such differences in their sentencing decisions.
New York’s youthful offender law, on the books since 1970, gives young people under the age of 19 a second chance if they haven’t already had a finding for a felony offense. The law allows judges to set aside a criminal conviction and replace it with a youthful offender adjudication, which is sealed to the public.
Sealing records under the youthful offender statute can be life changing. It can allow a 17-year-old to stay in his family’s apartment rather than face eviction and homelessness. It can mean admission to college for an 18-year-old. And it can translate into a lifetime of employment opportunities unhindered by a criminal record. Youthful offender protections are especially important in New York state, where we lag far behind the rest of the country by continuing to prosecute all youth as adults when they turn 16, and opportunities to seal adult convictions are nearly nonexistent.
However, the purpose of the youthful offender statute is undermined by cases that remain pending for months or years with all of that information open to the public. When kids’ court records are not kept private, they are susceptible to oversharing on the internet and become easy fodder for unscrupulous businesses. Websites, like mugshots.com, post information obtained from court records even after a case is dismissed or sealed. The websites then require people to pay $150 or more for their information be removed. Less nefarious, but just as harmful, news websites keep information about original arrests online, even after the case is sealed.
The implications for young people are very real. We worked with a young woman I’ll call Isabel, who was arrested for getting into a fight when she was 18. The court chose to seal her record as a youthful offense but before the case was over, the fight was reported on a website. Months after the case was sealed, an administrator at Isabel’s college found the story online. Based on the article, Isabel was kicked out of school. Other clients have been pressured to pay hundreds of dollars to multiple mugshot websites to have information about their sealed youthful offender cases removed.
This session, the state Legislature could enact our bill to keep kids’ cases private until the final disposition in the case. This would mean that when a teenager has a case in adult court and is eligible for a youthful offender adjudication, judges would have the power to keep all records confidential, while the case is pending. This is already allowed for youth charged with misdemeanors. Our proposal extends it to felonies because of the severe employment, housing, education and other consequences a felony can trigger.
Because the youthful offender statute already allows pending cases for misdemeanors to be sealed, our proposal only requires changing a few lines in the existing law. Youth Represent raised awareness about the issue and proposed the change in testimony before the Governor’s Commission on Youth, Public Safety, and Justice in 2014. Simultaneously, we worked with O’Donnell, who was then-chairman of the Committee on Correction, to draft legislation. In the coming legislative session, we will build support by making the youth development, public safety, and economic arguments for ensuring that teenagers get second chances.
This kind of legislative advocacy is critical to our mission. From the day Youth Represent opened its doors, we have worked not only to get the best results for clients under existing laws, but to make laws and systems work better. Comprehensive information on the requirements for nonprofits engaged in legislative advocacy is available from the Lawyers Alliance for New York.
Our bill is one small but critical element of needed juvenile justice reform. New York must catch up to the rest of the country and raise the age of criminal jurisdiction to 18, create more diversion opportunities, ensure that 16- and 17-year-olds are never placed in adult jails and prisons and expand youthful offender eligibility to 21. Yet while lawmakers drag their feet, thousands of young New Yorkers will be charged with felonies this year and risk carrying the burden of those charges forever. The legislature must act now for fairness and privacy for youth in adult courts.
Kate Rubin is the director of policy and strategic initiatives at Youth Represent, a youth defense and advocacy nonprofit. She has more than 10 years of experience advocating for criminal justice reforms that promote fairness, opportunity and safety.