By the age of 17, Terence Hallinan had had several scrapes with the law, including a conviction for helping beat up three Coast Guardsmen in order to steal a case of beer. Yet he was able to put delinquency behind him, and become a successful attorney who served two terms as district attorney of San Francisco.
An astonishing two million juveniles are arrested each year in the United States. For many, their first priority is getting out of custody. They may be willing to plead guilty to a seemingly trivial crime, in order to accomplish this short-term goal. Little do they realize that pleading guilty to a crime may have long-lasting collateral consequences far worse than the initial punishment itself.
In an excellent overview of the juvenile justice system in the current issue of The Champion (published by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers), Dr. Ashley Nellis, research analyst of The Sentencing Project, outlines some of these drastic consequences:
There is a public perception that African American and Latino students are quitting school in droves. But as explained on an episode of NPR’s Talk of the Nation last week, many of these students are actually the victims of PUSH-OUT policies disproportionately targeting students of color. Zero Tolerance policies spearheaded by the federal government are forcing some youngsters out of school even if an arrest does not lead to a conviction.
Contrary to what many people believe, children processed through the juvenile justice system do not automatically have their records destroyed (expunged) when they turn 18. Neither do juveniles transferred to the adult system. Having a criminal record creates sometimes insurmountable barriers to leading a successful life, by limiting options for housing, education and employment.
Due to a law passed in 1996, under the Clinton administration, a juvenile conviction can lead to the eviction of an entire family from low-income housing. Youth re-entering their communities from out-of-home placement also struggle to achieve housing stability. This destabilization, naturally, increases risk for reoffending -- and the cycle continues.
Despite their demonstrated lack of efficacy, and even their harmful effects, juvenile sex offender registries are gaining in popularity. In some states, children as young as nine are being placed on registries for childish misconduct or even consensual relations with other children. Ironically, children are the very people the laws were intended to protect, yet they are being disproportionately harmed by placement on registries.
Dr. Nellis concludes with a series of recommendations to reduce the negative impact of collateral sanctions for juveniles, including:After individuals have been added to the registry, they face strict limitations on where they can live, attend school, and work. Anytime registrants change residency they must notify the authorities and update their registration; failure to do so promptly can and frequently does result in incarceration…. Despite the law’s intent to make children and the community safer, it does the opposite. Young people face social stigma, branding as predators, housing bans, and exclusion from schools as a result of placement on the registry.
- Reverse counterproductive school-based policies such as "zero tolerance" that disengage youth from school.
- Ensure expungement for juvenile records.
- Prohibit inclusion of juvenile records on national and state offender registries.
- Restrict non-relevant conviction questions from employment applications.
- Revise and expand reentry services and supports for youth.