- Associated Press - Thursday, October 1, 2015

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Two legal experts are recommending the court records of Iowa’s convicted juveniles be confidential and unavailable to the public in an effort to help young people who have completed probation turn their lives around.

Jerry Foxhoven, the executive director of the Neal & Bea Smith Legal Clinic, and Mike Sorci, head of the Youth Law Center in Des Moines, met Wednesday with a state task force studying justice policy reform. The Governor’s Working Group on Justice Policy Reform formed in August and is expected to make recommendations within the next month on reforms in a variety of areas, including drug and mental health courts, juvenile court records, and the costs of phone calls made from Iowa’s prisons and jails.

The men encouraged the group to support changing state law so juvenile court records remain confidential unless a judge orders them to be public. Currently, anyone can access the court records of juveniles convicted of crimes on Iowa Courts Online and from court files.

Iowa has one of the most open juvenile court record laws in the country, Sorci said, recommending the state adopt a policy similar to Rhode Island, where juvenile court records cannot be accessed by the public.

When a minor who’s been convicted of a crime is stigmatized and labeled as a delinquent, it can be “very easy for that child to fall into the pipeline to prison,” Sorci said.

If juvenile court records are made confidential, it could also help lower incarceration rates for minorities, and particularly black children, who are nearly five times as likely to be arrested as their white peers, according to Foxhoven.

“As Juvenile Court Services work with these youth and get them on the right track, it doesn’t do (the juveniles) a whole lot of good if we tag them with an arrest record that follows them the rest of their lives,” Foxhoven said.

Alan Ostergren, a Muscatine County attorney and member of the task force, questioned whether confidential juvenile court records would hold the state’s court system to lesser accountability, because the public wouldn’t be able to easily scrutinize its actions.

But Sorci said “we need to weigh the harm to the child versus the public’s right to know.”

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Information from: The Des Moines Register, http://www.desmoinesregister.com

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