NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


February 1, 1996

Most states have statutes that allow or even require that the criminal records of juvenile offenders be expunged -- either destroyed or sealed -- when the delinquent reaches a certain age. However, some states are considering changing their laws, and some experts agree the practice is counterproductive.

Wiping the slate clean imposes a number of costs on society, since juvenile offenders are four times more likely to become adult criminals than other youths.

  • Since they don't know, judges can't consider defendants' violent crimes as juveniles when they come before the court as first-time adult offenders.
  • It is very difficult to collect meaningful data about juvenile delinquents and evaluate crime-prevention and rehabilitation programs.
  • Employers can't find out whether potential employees are prone to stealing or other criminal behaviors.

These laws also withhold information from the police, who use criminal records to identify suspects. This is an important consideration, since an increasing percentage of serious crime is committed by juveniles.

  • According to FBI estimates, between 1983 and 1992 violent crime committed by juveniles increased 57 percent, making them the fastest growing segment among violent offenders.
  • Murders and non-negligent manslaughter among juveniles jumped 128 percent, aggravated assault 95 percent and rape 25 percent.
  • Studies show that juveniles account for up to 35 percent of all police contacts with males.

The laws expunging juvenile records were meant to keep teenagers from being stigmatized for life by minor offenses, but in many cases they have become a shield for youthful criminal careers.

Source: T. Markus Funk, "Young & Arrestless," Reason, February 1996.


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