Like many adult criminal records, state laws allow the expungement of juvenile delinquency records. Expunging or sealing the record erases the offense from the public record. While most states don't completely destroy the record, the advantages of not having this information public will often be worth the effort to get the record expunged. Many states are also working on making the process easier, cheaper, and, sometimes, automatic.
This article will review how juvenile expungement works, why it's beneficial, and where to get help.
Expunging or sealing a juvenile record typically means it's not available to the public, which includes potential landlords, employers, colleges, and licensing agencies that commonly conduct criminal background checks. Former juvenile offenders can legally state on applications that they've never been arrested or adjudicated delinquent for the expunged offense. Expunging a record can remove significant barriers and give a person a better start on adulthood.
A common misconception is that all juvenile records get wiped when the person turns 18. That's not the case. Most states require the person to ask the court to expunge the record. Even in those states with "automatic" expungement procedures, it usually applies only to certain juvenile records. Expungement laws tend to come with wait periods, eligibility requirements, and numerous exceptions. If a record doesn't meet all the requirements, it won't be automatically expunged. We'll get into these issues more below.
Many people also mistakenly believe that all juvenile records are confidential. As a blanket statement, that's not true. Most states do provide greater protections for juvenile records when compared to adult records. But many juvenile records are open to the public, especially when felony charges were involved.
As noted above, most states don't completely destroy or erase expunged or sealed records. Typically, the record remains available for future charging and sentencing decisions, meaning courts, prosecutors, and law enforcement maintain access to the record. While most potential employers won't be able to see or find the record, some laws allow access to juvenile records if a person is applying for a sensitive position—say as a police officer, child care worker, or nursing home employee.
Each state has its own rules on which juvenile records can be expunged, when, and how. Whether or not a record can be cleared typically depends on the following.
In most states, a person must be 18 or older to request or have juvenile records expunged. Some states set the age at 19 or 21. For some minor offenses, the law may allow expungement when the case is dismissed, regardless of the person's age.
Many states require the person to remain crime-free for a certain period of time before their record can be expunged. For, instance, a state law might restrict expungement of juvenile records only after five years have passed since the offense. Other states set wait periods that don't start until the person completes their probation terms or sentence.
In most states, the law prohibits expungement of juvenile records when the person has subsequent juvenile adjudications or adult criminal convictions—or while such proceedings are pending.
Most states place some restrictions on the types of offenses that can be expunged. Many states won't allow expungement of serious juvenile offenses—for instance, those that would be considered felonies if committed by an adult. Other commonly restricted offenses include sex offenses, DUIs, and violent crimes.
On the flip side, many states make the expungement process simpler for minor offenses. Say a court places a juvenile in diversion for a first misdemeanor offense. The law may permit the court to seal all the records at the same time as closing the case, assuming the juvenile successfully completes diversion.
In most states, a former juvenile offender will need to formally ask the court to expunge their record through a petition process. Some states use an automated process, but not every offense qualifies for automatic expungement. So, even in these states, a person should do their homework to make sure their record qualified for expungement and was, in fact, expunged.
The petition process varies from state to state but most follow a similar procedure. The person will file a petition (or application) asking for an expungement with the court that handled the case. Most courts now provide the petition and instructions online. After filling out the petition, the person will file it with the court (usually along with a fee) and send a copy to the prosecutor's office that charged the case.
Once these steps are complete, the court clerk will schedule a hearing. If the prosecutor doesn't object to expungement, there might be no need for a hearing. Other times, the person will need to go in front of the judge and explain why they want their record expunged. Perhaps, the person has never committed another offense, is doing well in school, and wants to apply to colleges. If the judge signs off on the expungement, the person should get an order to that effect.
Several states automatically seal juvenile records after the juvenile reaches a certain age—as long as the offense qualifies and the juvenile remains eligible. For instance, a state might automatically expunge juvenile records 30 days after the person's 18th birthday, so long as the person has no subsequent run-ins with the law. It's also common for states to have wait periods of one to five years after completion of the case before the record qualifies for automatic expungement. Habitual or repeat offenders won't usually qualify to have their records expunged this way.
Some states' automatic procedures apply only to low-level offenses, such as misdemeanors or status offenses. (Status offenses are those that only minors can commit, like underage smoking.) Others automatically expunge only those offenses where the juvenile qualified for and completed diversion or another pretrial program. These types of records might be sealed in court when the judge dismisses the case.
The point is, even if a state has an automatic procedure, it's a good idea to check the status of a record and not assume it's been expunged. A court might not notify people to let them know that their record did or did not qualify for automatic expungement.
Depending on the state, a person might be able to check their juvenile record by contacting the court, searching online court records, or filling out a criminal record request. If none of these searches yield any results, that might be an indication that the record has been expunged—or it might not.
Some states don't maintain juvenile records online for easy public access. To find a juvenile record, a person might need to physically go to the courthouse, police agency, or another agency and make the request in person. The subject of the record (the juvenile offender) should be given access to the full record, including what offenses have been sealed. All of this information might come at a cost. Many states charge fees for record checks. To get pointed in the right direction, try contacting the juvenile court records office.
Contacting a criminal defense attorney is one way to get help with expunging juvenile records. A lawyer will do all the heavy lifting but, obviously, at a price. Going this route, though, can be beneficial to be certain a person has covered all of their bases.
A person can also complete the process on their own. Most state courts have expungement information and forms online. Some organizations devote resources to assisting individuals expunge their records for free, including legal aid organizations, expungement clinics, local law schools, and juvenile justice organizations.
To find help, run an online search for the court or location where the case was heard, along with keywords such as "expungement" and "juvenile records." Be wary of companies trying to make a quick buck to "help." Instead, look for government websites (courts, sheriffs, criminal records bureaus) and nonprofits like those listed above.