Public records in in the United States are a hot button topic; nearly every single day new laws are drawn up, scrapped, and voted on that seek to alter access to criminal histories in one way or another. Recently, the extent to which potential employers can question applicants about their criminal pasts has undergone scrutiny and found itself very much the focus of a national debate. Now, a new issue is taking the spotlight in the ever-exciting state of Florida: the criminal records of youths.
Recently, a law center in Philadelphia (the Juvenile Law Center) conducted a nationwide report into how well each state maintains the confidentiality of offenders who commit crimes as youths. Florida only received three out of five overall, though this was on par with the national average. Where they really fell short, however, was in the number of loopholes that could allow the criminal data on juvenile offenders to become public knowledge.
While this is the first time such a study has actually been conducted, it’s far from the first example of concern. One of the biggest problems, according to a representative for the center, is that offenses that individuals commit as a child can have a long lasting impact.
“Kids have the right to grow up and not have something they did as a child follow them the rest of their lives,” said an author of the report by the Juvenile Law Center. For many, there’s an inclination to agree with that sentiment as well. Some have called for a clearer distinction between “youthful delinquency” and adult crimes. What’s more, there’s plenty of research to support the importance of such a distinction.
Brain researchers, for example, have found that the parts of the brain that associate actions and consequences, and that factor into long-term decision making, do not fully develop until the early to mid- twenties, with that number often averaging higher for males.
This alone means that most acts committed as children, teens, and young adults are often influenced in ways that wouldn’t play out the same if the perpetrator was older; undoubtedly, this is why we often have more lenient punishment schemes for those committing crimes as children.
According to the report, 95 percent of the crimes committed by kids are non-violent, but that doesn’t keep them from becoming serious problems later on in life. Regardless of what the conviction is, employers, schools, and more frown upon past conviction, and even charges, which can mean that some small indiscretion as a youth haunts someone for decades into their adult lives.
The Law Center’s spokesperson noted that, since the September 11th attacks of 2001, policies allow government agencies greater and greater access to confidential records. Of course, this particular issue is part of the greater debate over the balance between personal liberties and freedoms and issues that affect the safety of the country. It’s a strained balance, and one that, as illustrated here, is far from perfect. As for this microcosm in Florida, it remains to be seen if or how officials from the state will respond to the Juvenile Law Center’s study.