Kids make bad choices for many reasons: lack of life experiences, partially formed frontal lobes, raging hormones, peer pressure, you name it.
We’ve all been there, so we cut them slack. We don’t say “I told you so” when their hearts are broken by “The One.” We give them money for college, even though they wasted their allowance. If they have any brushes with the law, we seal their records when they turn 18.
Except in Minnesota, that last part isn’t true. At a time when swiping beer from the neighbor’s garage constitutes felony burglary, when trying to impress older kids by giving them pills from the home medicine cabinet is felony distribution of a controlled substance and when school fights may be prosecuted as felony assaults, Minnesota makes criminal records public from the time kids turn 16.
Most kids don’t know until they apply for a job. Thinking their juvenile records are in the past, they check “no” to having been convicted of a crime and are fired when the background check turns up a conviction.
Worse, a nationwide study by the Center for Community Alternatives found that 66 percent of universities now ask about convictions. Some schools even have a “zero tolerance” policy when it comes to felonies. This puts many youths at an even greater disadvantage in the already competitive admissions process.
We all know the value of education. Generally, the higher your educational level, the more income you can expect to earn. The converse is also true. So, although it is not part of the official penalty, a conviction as a teenager often contributes to a life of poverty as one struggles to find decent work and is denied access to school.
No one knows how many kids are deterred from attending college because of their criminal records. However, a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that denying financial aid to people convicted of drug crimes delays enrollment in college by an average of two years, leads some to never enroll and disproportionately affects already disadvantaged young people.
Certainly people make good livings without college, but most of those people were raised in middle- and upper-class families, surrounded by good influences. Most teens with criminal records were raised in poverty, surrounded by bad influences. For many, the only hope of climbing out of poverty is going to college, escaping old environments, learning new ways to think and meeting people who will help them succeed.
Nobody is arguing that they shouldn’t be punished. They should pay their fines and do their time. For many, that experience is enough to teach them that they need to find another way to live.
We tell kids that they will succeed if they work hard. We believe that America is a place where people from humble beginnings can rise out of their circumstances and achieve their dreams. But we are taking the bootstraps away from many of our young people before they can pull themselves up.
The ill logic of our criminal-justice system has received bipartisan criticism. The Right on Crime Coalition recently hosted an event in St. Paul at which prominent conservatives argued the conservative case for traditionally progressive stances on criminal-justice issues.
Right now, there is a bill with bipartisan support going through the Legislature that would give teenagers who make bad choices a chance to turn their lives around by keeping their records from automatically becoming public in most cases. You can help it get passed by telling your representatives to vote for House File 392 and Senate File 286.
Decide separately whether you think adults deserve a second chance. Kids should get to move on from their mistakes.
Zachary Psick is a research and program assistant at the Council on Crime and Justice.