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Under a bill in the Maryland General Assembly, juveniles charged as adults with crimes would have their names and photos withheld from the public until a judge determines if they should be tried in juvenile court.
Under a bill in the Maryland General Assembly, juveniles charged as adults with crimes would have their names and photos withheld from the public until a judge determines if they should be tried in juvenile court. (Baltimore Sun)

Can you remember a time during your youth when you broke the law? Many of us engaged in some form of criminal behavior during adolescence, even if we were never arrested and charged with a crime. Maybe we experimented with alcohol or drugs, trespassed on private property or got in a fight. When you are young, you sometimes do things without full appreciation of the consequences.

Adolescents are treated differently under the law because we recognize that they are developmentally different from adults. Our society believes that youth deserve a second chance, benefit from rehabilitative services and should not be labeled as criminals. Publicizing juvenile records stigmatizes youth and limits opportunities for life-long success. This is why all juvenile court records should remain confidential.

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Under current Maryland policy, juvenile court records are confidential and not available to the general public, though they can be shared internally with various agencies, such as schools. Although juvenile records should not be publicly available online, not all youth are guaranteed the same protection of confidentiality.

When youth are charged as adults, all protections of confidentiality disappear. Private information about youth who are tried as adults — including name, date of birth, home address and the list of charges — are publicly available through the Maryland online court database. However, in many case youth are often only initially charged as adults until a judge decides it would be more appropriate for their case to be remanded to juvenile court. By then, all of the personal information is out there for the public to see.

Once a youth’s case is remanded to juvenile court, their criminal record should be expunged and the public should no longer have access to those records — just like any other juvenile case. However, removing a youth’s initial criminal court record from the public system is not automatic. A petition for expungement must be filed, or the youth’s record and original charges will remain in the public domain.

Recent research by Erika N. Fountain (co-author of this op-ed) at the University of Maryland Baltimore County uncovered 50 unique cases over the past three years of young people whose cases were remanded to juvenile court, but their original charges were still visible online. Because the petitions for expungement were never filed, we had immediate access to their private information as well as all of the original charges brought against them.

Maintaining the confidentiality of juvenile records becomes even more important when the media use that record in the court of public opinion. Recent news coverage of three young men assaulting a Baltimore police officer did just that. Media reports referenced the criminal record of Donnell Burgess, who is now 20 years old, from when he was just 16. Mr. Burgess was initially charged in adult court, but the judge ultimately decided his case should be remanded to juvenile court. After his case was remanded to juvenile court, his attorney never expunged the criminal case, which would have removed this information from the online case search database. As a result, nearly four years later, you can still see his original charges as well as his image and media reports of his previous juvenile arrest.

Because his juvenile record was not expunged, a news article now asserts that he has a “history of violence” even though his original case was remanded to juvenile court. These records should not be publicly available, but he is being labeled as a violent offender regardless. This label will follow him for the rest of his life.

In Maryland, these cases are disproportionately youth of color, as 81.7% of all youth tried as adults and detained pending transfer to juvenile court are African American, according to Maryland’s 2018 Data Resource Guide.

There is currently a bill in the Maryland Senate (S.B. 314) that may address this issue by expanding confidentiality protections to youth who are initially charged as adults but have their cases transferred to juvenile court. It would seal police and court records for all youth charged as adults until after a judge has decided whether to remand the case to juvenile court. If passed, it will protect youth like Donnell Burgess from having their adolescent behavior define them and follow them into adulthood.

Unfortunately, similar legislation has failed in the past.

Youth whose cases remain in adult criminal court, however, will not have their privacy protected. Protecting the confidentiality of youth is essential for ensuring that they have the opportunity to succeed by eliminating the stigma of a criminal record and reducing barriers to education and employment for the rest of their lives.

Erika N. Fountain (efount@umbc.edu) and Bronwyn A. Hunter (bhunter@umbc.edu) are both assistant professors in the Department of Psychology at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

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