Releasing Juvenile Records to Universities Unfairly Burdens Youth

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I joined the Army in 1984, at least in part because I hated high school. I couldn’t stand the drudgery of boring classes, which, at least to my adolescentJohn Lash mind, were a big waste of my time. Even though my parents encouraged me to attend college, I was having none of it. My idea of what school looked like was pretty entrenched, and it took going to prison to get me back in the classroom.

At the time, 1986, I had been in for not quite a year, and a lot of people told me that going to college would look good to the parole board. That was my only motivation. I came to the classes with a lot of skepticism, assured in my nineteen years of wisdom that I could play the system, get the grades, and get what I wanted.

I ended up in 1991 with a B.S. in Human Resources and a whole new view of the world, and it was directly related to my education, and to the challenges put forth by professors and the material itself. After my release the degree continued to serve me. It has enabled me to participate in a master’s program, and to find several decent jobs doing work that I love.

I was lucky. In 1994 Congress made prisoners ineligible for the Pell Grant, and effectively closed most of the college programs in prisons around the nation. This move, largely symbolic, was done in the face of overwhelming evidence that increased levels of education are directly linked to lowered rates of recidivism. It came at a time when, as described by a The New York Times Magazine article in 2005, the overall sentiment towards criminals was growing harsher and more punitive.

A similar dynamic is perhaps at play in a recent decision by a Pennsylvania appeals court, which ruled that government officials were permitted to inform a university that an incoming student had been found delinquent in juvenile court for disseminating child pornography.

As reported in The Times Herald of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, the youth, then seventeen, had downloaded an image and placed it in a folder that made it available for others on a file sharing network. He had already turned eighteen, and applied to Temple University, when he was adjudicated.

The Juvenile Act calls for schools to be informed of a youth’s delinquency. It has typically been applied to middle and high schools in the state, and not to post-secondary institutions. The court found that “it would be counterintuitive to conclude that the Legislature ‘only wished to protect students in primary or secondary schools from those juveniles who had been adjudicated delinquent but not those attending institutions of higher education.’”

At question here is the principle of youth records being sealed in adulthood, so as to not unfairly disadvantage them as they go forth into the world. Efforts like these, which seem to be an extension of a law meant to protect schoolchildren, strike at the intent of having separate juvenile proceedings at all.

According to Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel for the Juvenile Law Center, “It undoes this basic principle of the juvenile justice system,” that kids get another chance, a “reboot” as it were. As this case goes forward judges are interested in two questions. First, can they notify universities? Second, are they mandated to do so? Judges might enjoy the ability to notify if they think it is important, but existing notification laws govern this issue in most states.

Let’s keep in mind that the court has allowed this young man to remain free, and has not seen fit to try him as an adult, so he is most likely not considered to be a high risk. Given that caveat, I believe that the decision to notify the school was a mistake, and the principle of second chances should govern this young man’s future.

John Lash is a regular contributor to JJIE, writer and curator for Youthpolicy.org’s Youth and Justice blog, and the program director at the Georgia Conflict Center. He is also a student in the Kennesaw State University Master of Conflict Management program. His interest in restorative justice, Nonviolent Communication, youth, and mind – body practices developed during his nearly twenty five years of imprisonment.