This editorial will appear in Thursday’s print edition.
A work group for the Washington state court system meets Friday to discuss whether juvenile delinquents should be spared one of the consequences of their law-breaking.
The answer should be obvious: Courts do young offenders and society no favors by minimizing wrongdoing.
The discussion stems from a request by the Washington State Bar Association’s Juvenile Law Section to remove juvenile records from the public search function on the state courts website.
The state Administrative Office of the Courts’ website permits anyone to search Washington criminal and civil cases associated with a person’s name. At most, the system provides access to basic docket information about the cases; in many instances, even that level of detail is not available.
This is a big deal. If the state courts website were scrubbed of juvenile records, the suspected shooter in an Edgewood home-invasion robbery earlier this year would look like a young man whose life had only recently taken a wrong turn.
The reality is Kiyoshi Higashi’s history shows a long, escalating trajectory that begins at age 10. The bulk of his criminal record happened before he became an adult.
But lawyers who want minors’ records stripped from the public website argue that easy access to that information violates the premise of a juvenile justice system that promotes rehabilitation over punishment.
Mind you, the lawyers don’t want those records sealed. Their proposal would merely would frustrate public inspection of the records.
Without the state court website, finding out if that kid down the block just acts like a thug or actually is one would require a personal visit to the court clerk’s office, possibly several court clerk’s offices if he’s moved around.
Say the kid is a thief. Public knowledge of his misdeeds might invite stigma; it also probably will keep the neighborhood on alert and help keep him on his toes. Shame itself is a powerful deterrent. So too is a watchful community.
Proponents of removing juvenile records from the online database say they are concerned about an inherent flaw in electronic court records, which often do not provide enough detail to correctly gauge the severity of a crime or disposition of the case.
But that is a separate issue that affects adults, too. They are just as susceptible as juveniles to being unfairly tarred by court records. There is no safeguard against carelessness or malice; the light of day is our best defense.
Thwarting public access only invites distrust. It also robs the criminal justice system of a key tool: public accountability. Anonymity seldom helps keep a scofflaw on the straight and narrow.