New law is designed to provide teens with a better chance at employment and housing.
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.”