- - Thursday, December 18, 2014


By incapacitating violent and dangerous offenders, incarceration can promote public safety. But a point of diminishing returns is reached as prisons sweep in more and more nonviolent, low-risk offenders. These circumstances are even more alarming when you look at the juvenile justice system and consider that 95 percent of youths in this system have committed nonviolent offenses, including some that weren’t even a crime when many of us were kids.

According to the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an estimated 10,000 youths are incarcerated for nonviolent status offenses every year. Thousands of youths are placed in facilities that expose them to violence, disconnect them from their families and communities, and offer few pathways for rehabilitation. Because of their confinement, the chances they will come into contact with the law again are only increased.

This doesn’t hurt just the kids; it hurts taxpayers. The overreliance on incarceration of nonviolent youths comes with a hefty annual price tag — the lowest cost to states is more than $40,000 per year per child — in addition to the long-term costs to victims and taxpayers that are incurred when too many kids leave lockup more troubled than when they arrived.

I wish it stopped there. The repercussions these youths face as a result of incarceration also is costing youths and taxpayers dearly because of the widespread availability of juvenile records long after time has been served. Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of states — including Oklahoma — are failing to adequately protect the privacy of youths or the harmful effects of their juvenile records.

A youth record does not disappear automatically when you turn 18 or stick with you only in the case of violent offenses. Across the country, juvenile records are widely accessible to people who have no legitimate need for the information; the process to seal (close to the public) or expunge (physically destroy) a record is often lengthy and costly and may require an attorney.

We take for granted that juvenile records are protected, but people nationwide are affected by this issue every day. It’s not affecting just employment; it’s keeping people from obtaining housing, pursuing higher education, joining the military and more.

This also costs taxpayers and communities. A permanent, open record is like a ball and chain that prevents a youth from becoming a productive adult, reduces opportunities for employment, erodes the tax base and can lead to increased recidivism because of reduced job prospects. Retention of juvenile records also has shown to do little to improve public safety, but creates significant barriers to success for people who are trying to move beyond mistakes they made as minors.

The Juvenile Law Center recently released the first comprehensive nationwide assessment on confidentiality and expungement of juvenile court and law enforcement records. The assessment found that only eight states — California, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont — completely protect juvenile records from open access. In Arizona, on the other hand, all juvenile records are available to the public unless the court specifically orders them to be confidential.

Compared with other states, Oklahoma falls in the middle of the pack. Although Oklahoma has robust expungement provisions, records are widely accessible to the public.

Branding young people with lifelong scarlet letters does little to advance the goals of a system designed to rehabilitate them. Nor does it advance the best interests of communities and public safety. For far too long, our failure to protect juvenile records has come at the expense of kids and to the detriment of society. It is time for Oklahoma and other states to do more to reform policies that risk the futures of our youths and communities.

J.C. Watts is a Right on Crime signatory, chairman of the J.C. Watts Cos., and former Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Oklahoma.

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