Signed, sealed, delivered?

While Mary’s parents cried and her lawyer droned on, Mary sat serenely in her chair. Big deal if she was facing burglary charges. The lawyer had already told her she was going to get probation. And that crap her parents kept whining about—how this was going to ruin her future? Bull. Mary was only 16 and being tried in juvie court. As soon as her 18th birthday rolled around, her records would be sealed and it would be like nothing bad ever happened. Smooth sailing.

Hang on there, Mary. You’re assuming way too much.

First off, this is yet another of those situations in which the law varies by jurisdiction. So if you’re writing about this, check your state laws.

And second, it’s never as easy as Mary assumes. In some states and in some cases, sealing of juvenile records is automatic. But those situations tend to be limited to minor offenses committed when the kid was especially young. Usually, a person must go to court and file a petition to have a juvenile record sealed. Even then, many limitations apply. In California, for example, only certain kinds of records can be sealed, the person must now be over 18, and it must have been at least 5 years since the person has had significant contact with the criminal justice system.

Furthermore, even when juvenile records are sealed, they may still be available to some parties. For instance, they may still come up during a criminal background check conducted by various agencies. They won’t simply disappear.

If juvenile records are sealed, the person doesn’t have to report the offense when applying for jobs.

If Mary is 16 and facing a burglary charge, her juvenile record probably won’t automatically be sealed. If she’s in California or a state with similar rules, she can’t even try to have it sealed until she’s 21. And even then, if she hoped to work in law enforcement or get high security clearance for a federal job, she’s probably out of luck.

Incidentally, most states also allow some adult criminal records to be sealed and expunged. This is generally a difficult hurdle to leap, but it can be done. Years ago, I had a student who was convicted on drug charges at 18 but later turned his life around. He became an outstanding college student who gave a lot to his community. He had his record expunged and ended up with a career as a probation officer, trying to help other young people fix their lives.

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