Children with Criminal Records Should Be Given an Automatic Second Chance

Dec 9, 2020Commentary, Former Prisoners

Just in 2019, 12,243 youth and children (age 17 or younger) were arrested in Utah. In 2018, 13,292 were arrested. Some of these youth were arrested for serious offenses (murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, etc.), but most arrests involved minor offenses like disorderly conduct, trespass, loitering, etc.

This data raises some questions: what happens to these young people after they are arrested? How does being arrested affect their lives as they become adults?

Erasing a Criminal Record

In Utah, children and youth who are arrested and/or convicted of a crime can ask a court to expunge their record. The law allows them to petition for expungement only after they reach the age of 18 and one year has passed since they are done with the legal process involving their arrest or conviction. They also need to show they haven’t been convicted of a violent felony in the prior 5 years.

While it’s good this process exists, people who commit mistakes while young will have a criminal record for the rest of their lives, unless they go through the process of requesting expungement and get it approved. The reality is that a lot of people don’t have the knowledge or money they need to do this.

Having A Criminal Record Can Be Devastating

Being arrested and having a criminal record can prevent a young person who becomes an adult from progressing in life, including getting a job, obtaining suitable housing, enlisting in the armed forces, receiving financial aid for higher education, and qualifying to receive professional licenses. In other words, young people who made mistakes can start their adult life a step behind everyone else, which doesn’t help their chances of becoming prosperous and self-reliant.

It’s not fair to hold these young people back, especially if they committed a minor offense. Even if an offense was more serious but was committed years earlier or when the person was very young, they should get an automatic second chance, unless perhaps if the crime was as serious as something like murder or rape. If anyone gets a second chance, it should be children and youth who are still developing mentally and physically and often make mistakes they regret later in life.

Interestingly, some Utahns who were arrested in 2019 were under the age of 10, and many were between the ages of 10 to 14. (See data). These children especially should not have to suffer the consequences of a stained record into adulthood. Some people might think, “if they committed a crime that was their choice, so they should have to suffer the consequences.” This might be true to some degree, and there should be consequences, but as a society almost all of us believe in redemption–that people can change and improve–and we believe in giving second chances, just like we would want if we were in their shoes. We should give children and youth who make mistakes every opportunity to succeed in life because they, and we as a society, will be better off because of it.

What Are Other States Doing?

In some states, a juvenile’s record is automatically sealed or expunged, if certain criteria are met, such as the offense was minor and they haven’t had any convictions since. (See here and here). Some states also have a waiting period of anywhere between 1 and 5 years. In Utah, there’s a one-year waiting period and sealing and expungement are not automatic for children and youth, which means their record won’t be cleared unless they go through the process of petitioning a court.

Utah Should Expunge the Records of Most Children and Youth Automatically

Utah should automatically seal and expunge offenses committed by children age 14 and younger two years after a minor offense is committed, if the child hasn’t committed any other offenses. If  offense was more serious, expungement should occur automatically when they reach the age of 18, if they haven’t committed other offenses.

For youth ages 15-17, automatic expungement should occur two years after a minor offense, if the person hasn’t committed other offenses. For serious offenses, these youth should be allowed to petition for expungement two years after the offense if they can show they haven’t committed other offenses and they are rehabilitated. Finally, if a person is arrested and does not plead guilty and is not convicted, then the arrest should never show up on a background check–no matter the person’s age.

This approach would automatically eliminate minor offenses from the records of children and youth, allowing them to have a fresh start as they reach adulthood. It would also automatically erase serious offenses committed by offenders who were very young and give older youth an earlier opportunity to show they have rehabilitated and that they deserve a new start with a clean slate.

We treat minor offenders and adult offenders differently for a reason. If anyone deserves a second chance, young people who made mistakes should get one, just like we would want if we were in their shoes. When an offense is minor or was committed when a person was very young, they should not be forced to go through the process of petitioning a court–it should happen automatically.

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