Juvenile Records: Misconceptions, Stigma, and Principles of Juvenile Record Protection

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Author: Megan Holmes is a Legal Extern for Summer 2021

Alongside incarceration, fines, and stigma associated with youth legal system interaction, the ease of digital access to juvenile records in many states creates profound ripple effects for families and individuals in contact with the youth legal system that can be nearly impossible to leave behind. Earlier this month, at CJJ’s 2021 Annual Conference, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) Senior Policy Advisor Andrea R. Coleman shared research from her bulletin, Expunging Juvenile Records: Misconceptions, Collateral Consequences, and Emerging Practices, alongside Juvenile Law Center Staff Attorney Andrew Keats and staff members from Utah Juvenile Defender Attorneys. 

One of the many misconceptions regarding juvenile court records is that expungement, sealing, and confidentiality requirements are the same and that they take place automatically when youth turn 18. In reality, these are three distinct approaches to limiting access to juvenile records. Practices of sealing (making records unavailable to the public) and expunging (destroying or eliminating records as if they never existed), as well as confidentiality (requiring juvenile records be confidential, but allowing some exceptions to schools, crime victims, the media, and the public) vary widely from state to state. 

Unfortunately, according to a 2016 report by Juvenile Law Center, 33 states and the District of Columbia make at least some types of juvenile information available to the public, 7 states make all juvenile records public, with some exceptions that vary between states. In only ten states, record information is confidential, meaning there is no public access to juvenile records, no matter how serious the offense, the number of offenses committed, or the child’s age.

Stakeholders often mistakenly assume that juvenile records only contain court adjudication information, but in reality, they often include police reports with personal information like DNA, fingerprints, photographs, and much more.

According to the same report, all states allow these records to be shared between authorized agencies, such as law enforcement and the court system, but some state agencies and courts also enter into information-sharing agreements that provide juvenile records to private companies, researchers, and even companies profiting from providing access to these records for a fee. 

Because of these varied practices, even when court record information is later sealed or expunged, incorrect or outdated records may remain in the systems of private data mining companies. As such, juvenile records may appear in background searches from these companies even after the physical copies kept by the government have been destroyed or sealed.

This inconsistency can pose serious problems for young people who have been in contact with the youth legal system, as these data-mining companies are popular among employers and landlords, potentially leading young people with juvenile records to be barred from housing (public and private), professional licensure (such as nursing and teaching), and social welfare programs. This stigmatization can lead to higher unemployment and homelessness rates, and in turn, increased rates of recidivism.


The proliferation of juvenile court and police records online has a profound impact on the employment prospects of youth with court records. According to research compiled by Juvenile Law Center, 90 percent of employers run background checks, and 50 percent are less likely to call back or extend jobs to applications with juvenile records. Further, 40 percent of employers would definitely or probably not hire a candidate even if they had only a minor infraction on their record. Applicants may also be more likely to self-select out of the employment process if they believe they will be disqualified due to their juvenile records. 

The numbers are even more disparate for youth of color. Research cited by OJJDP states the likelihood of a callback interview for youth with a juvenile record is reduced by 50 percent for white applicants and 65 percent for black applicants, finding the effect of a juvenile record is 40% larger for black applicants than white applicants. 

Despite the expansion of “ban the box” initiatives across the country, in a 2015 study, 53 percent of employers stated that their companies still ask candidates about criminal records on their employment application. 


These impacts are just as profound for youth going through college admissions processes. Recent studies found that 62 percent of applicants were discouraged from even completing applications because of the background disclosure requirements. Further, 20 percent of students who disclosed their youth legal system interaction were denied admission after such disclosures.

Finally, for some juvenile infractions, including drug-related offenses, youth can be barred from receiving federal financial aid that is vital for their ability to attend college in the first place. As such, for youth with certain offenses in their background, attending college is virtually impossible.


Youth with juvenile records and their families may also suffer major obstacles in their ability to find housing. Policies like the National Affordable Housing Act allow housing authorities to evict residents due to the offenses of their relatives. Research shows that youth with juvenile adjudication records (particularly drug or sex-related offenses) have barred entire families from seeking public housing, and such families are only permitted to live in public housing if the youth is not allowed to live with them. Such policies vastly increase the likelihood of adjudicated youth experiencing homelessness. 44 percent of youth experiencing homelessness between ages 14-21 had previously been in a juvenile center or jail. 78 percent had one prior interaction with police and 62 percent had been arrested at some point in their lives. 

Policy Reform

While many of these policies and practices are done under the auspices of public safety, research shows that making juvenile records available to the public does not make communities safer. In fact, such policies actually decrease public safety by unnecessarily disqualifying youth with records from employment. In fact, lack of employment is the single strongest predictor of re-offending among adult populations. 

According to Juvenile Law Center’s Core Principles for Record Protection, ideal systems will ensure that:

  • Youths' law enforcement and court records are not widely available and never available online

  • Sealed records are completely closed to the general public

  • Expungement means that records are electronically deleted and physically destroyed

  • At least one designated entity or individual is responsible for informing youth about the availability of sealing or expungement; eligibility criteria; and how the process works

  • Records of any offense may be eligible for expungement

  • Youth are eligible for expungement at the time their cases are closed

  • There are no costs or fees associated with the expungement process

  • The sealing and expunging of records are automatic—i.e., youth need not do anything to initiate the process and youth are notified when the process is completed

  • If sealing or expungement is not automatic, the process for obtaining expungement includes youth-friendly forms and is simple enough for youth to complete without the assistance of an attorney

  • Sanctions are imposed on individuals and agencies that unlawfully share confidential or expunged juvenile record information or fail to comply with expungement orders

  • Juvenile delinquency adjudications [should] not be considered the same as criminal convictions as a matter of law, nor should they be used as evidence in any subsequent delinquency or criminal proceeding

  • The public should never have access to juvenile courtrooms during a juvenile proceeding


Find your state’s juvenile record score card here: