The Free Press, Mankato, MN

January 8, 2014

Youth offenders deserve chance

Why it matters: A new law that keeps juvenile offenses off some public records must be balanced with public's right to know

The Mankato Free Press

---- — When it comes to the public’s safety, it’s hard to argue for secrecy, but a recent compromise law strikes a good balance between the public’s right to know and a young person’s shot at a second chance.

The law that was scheduled to take effect Jan. 1 limits the availability of some juvenile crime records from easy electronic availability. Most of the juvenile records that were once widely available online (felony cases for those 16 and older) are now only available in hard copy form at the local courthouses.

The records were previously widely available with searches of the Internet or court databases.

Lawmakers came to together to modify the law in part to give juvenile offenders a chance to distance themselves from their past and make a new start with a job or education.

The records and documents of cases where juveniles are charged with more serious violent crimes will still be available electronically.

But most of the other felony level crimes will only be available at the courthouse.

Minnesota is one of the few states that make this information available on juveniles at the stage of charging, before they have been convicted.

Proponents of the law’s new restrictions argue that an employer might look at the records and only see the charges, but not the whole case which could have ended in a not guilty verdict.

The state Juvenile Delinquency Rules Committee has petitioned the Minnesota Supreme Court to reject the new rules mostly because they will put an added burden on the court system. Courts will have to do more paperwork and continually update cases to determine their public status.

The committee also is suggesting the Legislature somehow overstepped its bounds in changing access to records, arguing it is the responsibility of the courts. There is a hearing on the matter scheduled for Feb. 18.

There is little doubt the new system will require court staffs to take on a new management task.

But that’s not really the right question to ask here. We suspect almost all new laws will require some amount of additional work on the part of those who carry out government functions.

Proponents of the law, including chief author Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, argue the law creates more justice for juveniles and while courts need to be efficient, it is not the reason they exist.

Latz makes sense, and if the courts need more funding to carry out these new duties they should get it or be relieved of other duties that take staff time.

Longtime Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman argues that the Supreme Court needs to decide in favor of enforcing the law and that the benefits outweigh the costs.

Freeman wrote the court saying that while juveniles who commit serious violent crimes should have their cases made public, those who are found not guilty or have cases dismissed should not “have their names bandied about.”

He argued the legislation going forward was a compromise plan that had been worked on for years and the courts should respect that.

The proposed new law seems reasonable. Newspapers and the public will still have access to important court records, but it will be more difficult for for-profit data-mining services to gather records for their clients. That’s a reasonable compromise.

Juveniles trying to distance themselves from their past and make a new start who continually find themselves battling old records on the Internet are more likely to re-offend and cost the system more money if they can’t find gainful employment or get housing.

The new law seems to balance the competing interests of the public’s right to know and those of helping troubled youth get a new start.