Working to expunge juvenile criminal records

April 10, 2018

Did you know that a juvenile criminal record can follow you through your life and significantly impact your ability to attend college, get a job, obtain housing, qualify for certain professional licenses, obtain a security clearance, and even bar you from chaperoning your child's school field trip? These are among the consequences of a youthful mistake that a person may face despite having a crime-free adult record.

The number of Delaware residents with juvenile records eligible for expungement may be as high as 26,000. Yet, records are not automatically eliminated in Delaware. Current laws instead require that individuals with juvenile records apply for expungement through a process that requires them to be fingerprinted in order to obtain a copy of their current criminal record at cost of $52 and then to complete an application for which assistance by a lawyer is recommended. The application is then reviewed by court officials despite a growing list of categories for which expungement is mandatory if specific conditions have been met.

Experts in juvenile justice have long advocated that the records of those who do not repeat their offenses should be automatically expunged or eliminated from official files and not be made available to the public. Maintaining the confidentiality of records until they are expunged is also key since these records often contain information on the offender's family, education, social history, behavioral issues, and mental health, in addition to the criminal record.

The Southern Delaware Alliance for Racial Justice recognizes that the consequences of juvenile criminal records are especially severe for minorities as they compound the effects of widespread discrimination in the housing and job markets as well as in the school disciplinary and criminal justice systems. SDARJ is working with the Delaware Office of Defense Services to encourage those eligible to expunge their juvenile records to eliminate these debilitating and long-lasting consequences. SDARJ's volunteers supported the first expungement clinic held by OSD in southern Delaware in 2017, which assisted more than 50 applicants.

SDARJ will also be supporting a second clinic later this spring and has raised funds to again assist applicants who cannot afford the $52 fingerprinting fee. Outreach activities are being expanded to provide additional information to schools, churches, and community service groups as well as to the media, to make sure that individuals facing the consequences of juvenile records are aware of the laws and procedures which can lead to expungement of eligible records.

A 2014 nationwide survey of juvenile record expungement practices and record protection regulations highlighted the wide discrepancies in state practices. Using a five-star/percentage scale, the national average was three stars and 40 percent compliance with best practices. Delaware received only two stars and a 24 percent ranking as compared with the following scores for Delaware's neighbors: Maryland (63.1 percent), DC (45.7 percent), Virginia (44.7 percent), New Jersey (42.6 percent) and Pennsylvania (38.1 percent). Eight states received the highest rating of four stars.

Delaware fully met the recommended standards for regulations which permit the sealing/expungement of juvenile delinquency court records and law enforcement records (including fingerprints and DNA), and for laws that sanction those who do not comply with sealing/expungement statutes. It exhibited limited compliance with recommendations for regulations that determine what offenses are eligible for expungement/sealing, for requirements/practices to inform juvenile offenders of expungement availability, for its fee in excess of $50 (currently $52), and for the availability of law enforcement and court records to others, including employers and the media.

Delaware has enacted a number of reforms since the study was conducted, but SDARJ believes more can and should be done in the following areas:

• Begin a process which will lead to automatic expungement without the payment of additional fees or completion of additional forms; intermediate steps can include development of a secure database what will permit automatic expungement for crimes eligible for mandatory expungement.

• Passage of SB 146, which will immediately remove records when a juvenile is found not guilty of a felony or charges are dropped.

• Simplify the application process to permit an individual to file without the assistance of legal counsel.

• Limit access to law enforcement and court records through legislation such as HB 7.

• Ensure that expunged records are electronically deleted and physically destroyed.

SDARJ supports legislation currently before the General Assembly that would streamline the expungement process, including SB 146 mentioned above as well as HB 305, which would eliminate current laws that allow a juvenile record to be used as a second "prior qualifying Title 16 conviction" leading to mandatory enhancement of adult sentences for certain drug offenses. The alliance also endorses HB 308, which extends the civil citation statute. This program has provided law enforcement options that permit juvenile offenders to stay outside the formal court system provided they are not repeat offenders and comply with citation requirements.

If you know of someone who has a juvenile record, encourage him or her to contact the Office of Defense Services, whose website provides information on eligibility, application forms, and contact information.

Nancy Powell is chair of the SDARJ Advocacy Committee, and Zita Dresner is an attorney and a member of the committee.

  • Cape Gazette commentaries are written by readers whose occupations, education, community positions or demonstrated focus in particular areas offer an opportunity to expand our readership's understanding or awareness of issues of interest.

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