This is part of a series of articles examining laws currently being considered for Maine and relevant to the Wraight.Law legal practice.
A bill being debated by lawmakers in Augusta would limit access to the records of juveniles accused of crimes, and allow records of those who've kept a clean record to be 'sealed' from public view.
The bill is currently being considered in the 129th Maine Legislature's Second Session.
If enacted, the proposed statute would set a new default in that a juvenile's history of offending would not be a public record, not be open to public inspection, and be regarded as confidential. The statute's general framework of hiding these records mainly applies to minor 'crimes'. In Maine, a juvenile doesn't get a criminal conviction if they have broken a criminal law but a matter is regarded as an 'adjudication' that is compared with laws that apply to adults.
This default of confidentiality would not apply to a juvenile over the age of 13 accused of murder, felony murder, or manslaughter - offenses that would apply if they were charged as an adult - and gives discretion to a court to release those records for juveniles under that age and accused of those offenses if the prosecutor asks for a public release. The bill still limits what can be released about any other past history for more minor offenses (both the petition and any 'adjudication'), and would force redactions of alleged child (minor) victims before allowing people to see any record.
Crucially, if a record is not deemed to be confidential because of the seriousness of the crime, or because court ruled that confidentiality to the lifted, the general public may not be excluded from any Juvenile Court for that case either. An alleged victim (or their agent, such as a parent or guardian) can attend all court proceedings whether they are open to the general public or not, under the proposals.
The proposed new default of confidentiality would also limit dissemination of juvenile records to just other criminal justice agencies for narrow purposes or employment with that agency in the future. These otherwise confidential records could also be disclosed if the record needs to be released because that duty is specified in another statute, or can be given to entities for visa, travel, or immigration purposes (such as the federal government). The proposed law would also prevent state holders of the information from even confirming or denying a record's existence to others (like journalists, I guess). It gives wide discretion to a court about what can be released, but makes sure if a release is requested, the juvenile's attorney has an opportunity to argue against it.
Any agency, other than a court, proposing to release information for anything other than those specified and narrow reasons (the bill says if a release is for a non-criminal justice purpose) would also have to first check with the state's Department of Public Safety, Bureau of State Police, State Bureau of Identification before releasing a record. Public disclosure by law enforcement or corrections-related officers of the juvenile's identity in a court petition (the document about the case and accusations against the juvenile) would not be allowed without a court order allowing the petition's release for public inspection. However, this document could still be given to the alleged victim (or immediate relatives) upon request, or their parents / guardians of the accused juvenile.
The proposed statute also gives an opportunity for researchers to study anonymized records that exclude both the victim and accused juvenile's identities.
Perhaps most importantly, the bill gives a mechanism for a juvenile to close the records from public view, however serious the offense. If a juvenile offender has kept out of trouble for three years after the end of their case (he or she hasn't been convicted as an adult or committed any other juvenile offense, or been accused of either), the person whose records are at issue can petition the court to have them sealed from public view. However, the bill still leaves a gaping hole - the court can deny the request if the court feels the public's right to information "substantially outweighs" the juvenile's privacy interest. So, and this is a guess, mere media interest in a case could be a determining factor, unless this is narrowed by future Law Court decisions (and the bill even becomes law).
It is worth noting that this statute only prevents or narrows disclosure by government entities. It cannot, because of constitutional law, prevent journalists or others from knowing the names of accused juveniles and publicizing them. However, the law helps juveniles to move past their previous bad behavior and lead law-abiding lives in adulthood.
You can check the bill's progress through the legislature on this link.