Proposed bill seeks to close more juvenile court records to the public

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When should juvenile court proceedings be open to the public?

A bill that addresses that question is drawing passionate, varied responses from prosecutors, probation officers and other community members who work with young people accused or convicted of crimes.

Sponsored by Rep. Carly Melin (DFL-Hibbing), HF392 would close some juvenile hearings and records that are public under current law.

Supporters of the bill say that it would give a second chance to many teens who would otherwise be dogged for years by criminal records that make it hard to get a job, find housing, or go to college. Opponents say it would decrease government accountability and rob the public of information about how the justice system deals with some serious crimes.

Many juvenile court proceedings are already closed to the public. A key exception to state law took effect in 1986: Juvenile hearings are public if the child in question is 16 or 17 years old and has been charged with a felony. Records in such cases are public even if an initial felony charge is later reduced or dismissed.

If HF392 becomes law, many hearings in felony-level cases against youth ages 16 or 17 would be closed unless the court finds that, due to the violent or serious nature of the alleged offense, the benefit to public safety of holding an open hearing outweighs the possible consequences for the child.

The old standard would still apply in adult certification hearings, which determine whether a youth is tried in adult court. Extended jurisdiction juvenile hearings would be open at the request of the prosecutor.

The bill is a needed update to the law in an era when electronic records spread fast and far, Melin told the House Early Childhood and Youth Development Committee on Wednesday. Since 1986, more crimes have been made felonies, more employers do background checks, and criminal records are posted on the Internet for all to view, she said.

On a regular basis, juvenile probation officers such as Andrea Emery talk to young people who are “sometimes in tears, sometimes with parents,” and devastated to learn that a criminal record will follow them. Emery testified in support of the bill on behalf of the Minnesota Corrections Association, as did a Ramsey County judge and representatives of the Council on Crime and Justice.

Critics include Tom Arneson, an assistant Hennepin County attorney. “These are cases that the public has a right to know about,” he said, adding that government operates better in the open than behind closed doors.

The Minnesota Newspaper Association is also against the bill in its present form, its attorney told the committee.

The committee approved the bill and referred it to the House Judiciary Finance and Policy Committee. A Senate companion, SF286, sponsored by Sen. Ron Latz (DFL-St. Louis Park), awaits a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee.