At a recent Minnesota Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee hearing, the committee considered critical legislation that would change a state law which makes children's court records public if they are 16 or 17 years old and charged with a felony.
The current law is deeply problematic, leading to devastating lifelong consequences for children, and running counter to everything that we know about adolescent brain development. The legislation is supported by stakeholders throughout the juvenile justice system and has broad bipartisan support, having been considered and passed unanimously by both the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Committee and the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee.
And yet, a representative from the Minnesota Newspaper Association appeared at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to oppose the bill. Based on unsupported claims about the need for public access to children's court hearings and records to ensure public safety and fairness in the juvenile justice system, the Minnesota Newspaper Association's position is disingenuous at best, and arguably reflects a motive of prioritizing self-serving opportunities for sensationalism over the protection of vulnerable children.
Research has consistently demonstrated that treating children like adults, including by making their court records public, increases the likelihood of future system involvement, producing a negative impact on community safety. Holding public hearings and creating public records for children only serves to harm children and our communities.
This holds true even, and maybe especially, with regard to felony charges. In Minnesota, felony charges encompass a wide range of behaviors, including things like throwing eggs at parked cars, stealing a bike, possessing drugs, a fight involving taking a cellphone and many more. There is no evidentiary basis for making these cases and records public; on the contrary, the evidence consistently supports the importance of treating all children as children.
And let's be clear about who the current law is harming. Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) are significantly overrepresented in Minnesota's juvenile justice system. This is not because of differences in behavior; research has consistently demonstrated that children of all racial identities engage in behaviors that fall within the scope of the juvenile justice system at similar rates. BIPOC children are targeted by this system, and the current law making children's hearings and records public leads to deep harm and significant racial inequality in access to education, employment, housing and more.
Additionally, any suggestion by the Minnesota Newspaper Association that their opposition to this legislation is grounded in ensuring the fairness of our juvenile justice system is completely unsupported by both the record of their members and the state of our youth justice system. Most aspects of our government's intersection with children are given privacy protections, so public access in this context puts this well outside of the norm.
Moreover, as a devoted follower of news related to youth justice in Minnesota, I can't remember the last article I saw that examined the fairness of the hearings or the system. Instead, the focus is consistently on sensationalizing allegations against children and hyping headlines. And the deep and persistent racial disparities and generational harm caused by our juvenile justice system provide clear evidence that public access to children's hearings and records have done nothing to ensure fairness in this system.
I was grateful to read the recent opinion published by the Star Tribune, "Restoring humanity to the system is overdue" (March 15), by Dr. James Densley. Yet it is deeply disappointing that the Star Tribune would publish this strong opinion piece while simultaneously attempting to undermine his points as a member of the Minnesota Newspaper Association.
Ultimately, I hope that the Minnesota Newspaper Association can revisit its position and join the broad group of stakeholders and bipartisan legislators seeking to protect children and improve community safety by supporting this legislation.
Sarah Davis is executive director, Legal Rights Center.