Despite a united front, advocates for a new law that would block electronic access to some juvenile court records faced a skeptical Minnesota Supreme Court Tuesday, which grilled them over the additional burden the law would place on the courts and concern the lawmakers—not the judicial branch—are dictating which records are public and private.
The hearing concerned a new state law dubbed the “Access Statute” which would block access through, MNCIS, the state’s online court system, to records involving the criminal cases of 16- or 17- year-olds charged with a felony—the only juvenile cases currently public. Hearings in such cases would remain open and paper copies of the files would be available at courthouses. Electronic records involving serious violent offenses would remain available, with some exceptions--such as when a prosecutor and defense attorney agree to do so. That caveat was troubling to Justice David Lillehaug, who said such deals could interfere with victims' rights.
“That’s the piece that I’m wrestling with the most"
Backers, which include prosecutors, public defenders and juvenile justice advocates, say the law allows young offenders to move on with their lives without being dogged by easily-searchable online records, which could prevent them from finding jobs or acceptance into schools—it’s a problem exacerbated by the advent of for-profit data miners, who gather the data en masse for sale to potential employers and other screeners.
But the state’s Juvenile Delinquency Rules Committee last November advised the supreme court not to adopt the law which was set to take effect last month, arguing that classifying a record as electronically private yet physically public creates a high risk for error and places additional burden on a system striving to go electronic. The back-and-forth between the groups triggered Tuesday’s hearing. The Minnesota Supreme Court will issue its final decision later.
Michelle Larkin, Chair of the Delinquency Rules Committee, was alone in discussing potential problems with the law, yet did not hear pushback from the Justices when reiterating that adopting the law is “simply not workable” for Minnesota’s Judicial Branch in that it creates a complicated system with multiple definitions of what’s public and private. Their recommendation against the law is “in no way an indication that it doesn’t care about kids,” she said.
Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, an attorney and co-sponsor of the bill that became law, said that broad support in both the House and Senate, along with a coalition of legal professionals intent on allowing young offenders a second chance.
Fred Friedman, Chief Public Defender for the Sixth District of Minnesota which includes the state’s arrowhead, said the law is designed to protect juveniles who “messed up, and never messed up again.” Every day, Friedman said he’s approached by people in their 40s and 50s who thank the public defender’s office for giving them a second chance.
“Younger people don’t do that,” he said. “Because back then, criminal records were kept on a 3x5 card, and now they’re kept on a machine that the whole world can access.”
State Public Defender John M. Stuart noted that the juvenile courts were created in part to protect juveniles from suffering lifelong consequences of the mistakes they made when they were young and impulsive.
Justice Wilhelmina Wright asked Stuart whether regulation of the data mining industry would as easily solve the problem. Stuart compared that to fixing a plumbing problem.
“It’s nice to be able to turn the water off at the source rather than mopping up afterward,” he said.