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Should juvenile criminal records be kept secret?

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

In the weeks since the state Supreme Court suspended changes to a rule that would make virtually all juvenile criminal records secret, attorneys, court officials, open government advocates, reporters and others have weighed in with arguments on both sides.

The approximately two dozen comments sent to the court for consideration primarily center on whether the privacy of offenders under the age of 18 outweighs the public’s right to view court files in these cases.

The amendments to the rule would automatically seal records in juvenile cases, a major shift from current practice, in which most juvenile criminal court records are public.

The changes initially were adopted in December with little fanfare and practically no discussion or public comment, but they were suspended just 10 days after they took effect in order to allow additional time for public comment.

Although early interpretations varied, the 2nd Judicial District Court has said the changes would not apply to older teens accused of first-degree murder, whose cases would remain open. But they would seal all other juvenile cases, ranging from rape and second-degree murder to vandalism and shoplifting.

The Children’s Court Rules Committee recommended the amendments, saying they were consistent with a trend toward protecting the privacy of children “who come in contact with the courts, particularly in the digital age.” The changes also were intended to clarify existing ambiguous language that left courts interpreting the rule in different ways.

But opponents say the rule changes will deprive the public of its right to know what happens in certain cases involving juveniles, and even those affected by the crimes could be left in the dark.

Among those in support of the amendments are several children’s lawyers, the National Juvenile Defender Center, other children’s interest groups and the 2nd Judicial District Court in Bernalillo County. Those who wrote in opposition include the local District Attorney’s Office, print and television news operations and the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government.

If the 2nd Judicial District Court is correct, the changes would not affect records in many high-profile cases, including those against Nehemiah Griego, who was 15 when he killed his three siblings and parents, and Jeremiah King, the then-16-year-old gunman in the “mobbing” murder of local bartender Steve Gerecke.

But juveniles ages 14 and under facing first-degree murder charges would likely see their records sealed. That would include Enrique Palomino and Matthew Baldonado, both of whom were 14 when they were charged in Gerecke’s death, but later admitted to lesser crimes.

And cases of anyone under 18 accused of any other crime but murder would also be sealed, including the case against Serjio Greigo, 17, accused of severely beating his grandmother last month.

Pros and cons

Many supporters of the proposed rule change wrote that a childhood mistake should not impact a person for life.

“The interest of the media and of commercial entities in publishing harmful information about minors does not outweigh the public interest in seeing our young people succeed,” attorney Shasta Inman wrote.

She said that failing to seal juvenile records may affect a person’s chance to join the military, gain employment and otherwise become a productive member of society, even though a recent study found that children who have committed offenses are not necessarily on track for adult criminal careers.

“Once young people have fulfilled the mandates of the delinquency system they should not be made to pay the price for their mistakes for the rest of their lives,” wrote attorney Nathaniel Puffer.

The National Juvenile Defender Center argued that keeping juvenile records confidential is “critical to ensuring that youthful transgressions do not become life-long barriers to success.”

And 2nd Judicial District Court officials emphasized that hearings in those cases would remain open to the public, even if records are sealed. The changes, they said, “appropriately balance a child’s right to privacy with the public’s interest in being informed of and viewing public hearings.”

But some opponents have pointed out that if dockets and documents are sealed, the public would not know when the public hearings are held. That would “functionally close the entire juvenile justice system, even though the legislature has mandated that it be open,” wrote Wheeler Cowperthwaite, a reporter with the Rio Grande SUN in Española, in his letter to the court.

Meanwhile, attorney Chuck Peifer, who represents the Journal and KOAT-TV, argued that members of the public affected by crimes, whether committed by juveniles or adults, have the right to follow the prosecution and outcome of those cases.

“Sadly, we live in a time when juveniles are, with some frequency, accused of serious criminal conduct, ranging from activities related to ‘mobbing’ crime sprees where juvenile gangs roam from victim to victim, to a planned mass shooting at a school,” he wrote.

Diana Garcia, an attorney for the 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office, questioned how victims of crime would stay apprised of developments in a case. And she pointed out that under the changes, initial allegations might be reported by the media, but the outcome of a case would be inaccessible.

“This would leave the fact that the child was accused and treated as guilty in the public realm,” she said. “Should those charges be dismissed or the child be acquitted, without a public report on it, anyone who searches the internet for information pertaining to that child would only find the accusations, but never the result.”

And 11th Judicial District Court officials worried that court clerks might not be able to answer simple questions over the phone when defendants’ parents called for updates.

The deadline for comments was late last month, and justices will take them into consideration as they make a final decision.

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