Jeramie Shemonia spent months trying to find a job and land an apartment. Some interviews went very well for the 18-year-old, but then weeks passed without a return phone call.
Shemonia was shocked to find out later that a quick computer search of his criminal background repeatedly shut the door before he had a chance to tell his story. More than a year ago, an alcohol-related incident with a roommate ended in three felony charges. Shemonia pleaded guilty to one minor assault count and the others were dismissed.
In the future, a new state law will limit public access to nonviolent crime records for 16- and 17-year-olds. It’s part of a comprehensive legislative effort to get offenders such as Shemonia past a permanent roadblock that often leads back to a jail cell.
“Over time, juvenile delinquency records have become the Facebook of court records,” said retired Anoka County District Judge Michael Roith. “Every misstep by a child was immediately put on the Internet. The data pendulum is starting to swing the other way.”
Minnesota is one of a small number of states that make juvenile criminal records public at the point when someone is charged. About 2,500 felony-level charges were filed for 16- and 17-year-olds statewide last year, including 770 in Hennepin County.
The problem with this level of availability of records is that an employer or landlord may skim and find the initial charges but not review the entire file for the case’s final disposition, said Mark Haase, vice president of the Council on Crime and Justice. That organization led the drive for the new legislation.
Available, in person
Under the new law, which will take effect Jan. 1, 2014, the data will remain public, but access will be available only on paper records at a courthouse.
“The old system was contrary to the belief that juveniles should be held accountable so they can learn from bad choices but then be fully able to reach their potential as responsible adults,” Haase said.
The new law still allows computer access to criminal records for juveniles certified as adults or charged with violent crimes. Such access also is available for cases involving convicted teens who have a potential adult sentence hanging over their head until age 21.
Corrections, law enforcement and school employees won’t be affected by the law. In addition, computer background checks continue to be allowed for the state Department of Human Services and for all positions requiring a check to work with children.
Four years to agreement
It’s taken advocates of restricted juvenile records four years to reach a compromise with legislators. Pushback came from people arguing that the criminal justice system needs to remain transparent. This year’s bill proposed closing some court hearings, but that proposal was eventually dropped.
This is the first significant change to juvenile records since they were made public in 1986 through a bill authored by Mike Freeman, then a state legislator and now the Hennepin County attorney. At the time, juvenile crime was rising and the public was pushing for more accountability in the juvenile justice system.
“Juvenile courts were private little fiefdoms,” he said. “Parents didn’t know what was going on.”
Back in 1986, court records weren’t widely available electronically. Now, Minnesota has a statewide public records database and many companies mine the data and sell it to businesses and organizations, said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi.
“It will now be more difficult to obtain the records,” he said. “People applying to colleges and seeking housing, jobs and licensure need every chance to succeed. These are pro-social things that keep people from reoffending.”
Freeman agrees with the new changes. The Minnesota Corrections Association also supports the new law because it recognizes the difference between nonviolent and violent offenders as it relates to balancing public safety with future opportunities and success for juveniles, said Jackie Nichols of the association’s Juvenile Justice Committee.
Target Corp. spokeswoman Molly Snyder said limited access won’t impact Target’s background check process, which excludes all applicants with convictions for serious violence, theft and sex crimes.
Studies show that juveniles who are given meaningful work experience take their education more seriously, said Will Lehman, community programs director for Howe Family YMCA of Greater Twin Cities. The Y found that the criminal records of people participating in their paid internships didn’t indicate how well they would perform at work.
“Minnesota is taking the lead with the new law, but it’s a nationwide issue that will affect our economy in the future,” he said.
Probation agent’s experience
Andrea Emery, a probation agent for 14 years, said clients stop in her office in tears every week because they are rejected for housing and thought their juvenile record was secret.
Shemonia, who lives in Red Wing, is one of her clients. He once interviewed for a fast-food restaurant job and when he called back a few days later, was told they weren’t hiring. Shemonia stopped by the restaurant and saw five new faces, he said.
“I was told several times I was being turned down because of my record,” he said.
Shemonia, who has a job with a company willing to hire people with criminal records, was charged with assault after fighting with a roommate “over stupid stuff” when he was 17. He wasn’t close with his family, frequently moved from state to state and had trouble staying in high school.
Emery said that Shemonia passed his high school equivalency test the first time and is definitely smart enough to go to college, but that the background checks are holding him back.
“I’m bummed the law only helps people going forward,” said Shemonia.
Although the law won’t benefit Shemonia, Haase and others are sure it will have an impact. Their faith is bolstered by the new Ban the Box law also passed this year, which requires public employers to wait until a job applicant has been selected for an interview before asking about criminal history or conducting a background check.
“I think the happenstance access to records won’t happen,” he said. “I hope the typical employer won’t get the records.”