Houston we have a problem.” Those words were spoken by Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell to Mission Control in Houston, Texas, letting them know that their spacecraft had experienced an explosion. Understanding the problem and finding a solution to save the lives of the crew has become a legend for how to solve a problem without placing blame.
Back to earth and in the present day, we have our state Legislature in session trying to solve problems in a political world where blame is always front and center. While noodling around the internet, I found some commentary wanting to derail a solution to a problem and denigrate those working to improve juvenile privacy protections within the court records process.
The comments I found were directed at District 30 Senator Claire Wilson and her co-sponsorship of Senate Bill 5644. The commenters disagree with the bill’s intent as well as the Senator’s approach toward public safety and want the potential legislation to fail.
SB 5644 has been introduced, is in committee and its companion bill in the House, HB 1769, has also been introduced. Both bills intend to clarify once open court proceedings are completed that court-ordered juvenile records are sealed and protected. The bills also create a cause of action for improperly disseminating sealed or destroyed records.
Sharing an opposing point of view is part of the process and making sure those in elected positions feel the public’s concern is traditional political strategy. This is often done without regard to the problem or offering a better solution. Being loyal in opposition may be more important than solving privacy issues for juveniles being adjudicated in the court system for their crimes.
The concern expressed by opponents to SB 5644 is that in sealing a record, the data of the crime itself will not be accurately counted for statistical purposes, and there will now be consequences for sealed records that are improperly managed or information shared.
Current law allows the sealing of juvenile crime records if it is not a most serious offense, a high-level sex offense, or a felony drug offense. For records that are sealed the data of the crime gets recorded and is trackable, but the names of the perpetrators are obscured in documents and sealed to protect current and future privacy.
In our society, we tend to be focused on punishment and some want a permanent public record of all crimes committed by all individuals regardless of age. The two bills support privacy to assure that individuals who commit a youthful transgression that fits within the criteria for sealing their record are not subjected to a lifetime of retribution without any clear path for redemption, or future ability to be considered productive within society.
True — some perpetrators are not capable of returning to society and that is what trials, courts, youth reform and adult prison systems, and parole boards decide.
Years ago during a summer construction job, I was asked by the foreman if I’d be willing to work with the “new” guy. I said sure, but as the foreman provided more information, I was less sure about saying yes. The new guy was just out of prison, had killed an individual, and was on parole work agreement. It turned out that the individual he killed was the father of an acquaintance of mine from high school.
In construction, you are assigned to a crew and moved where needed. I worked with him for several days with no issues. He was several years older and in his youth was a misguided misfit and peer pressured into doing physical violence and committing robberies. If the foreman had never mentioned his past, I would never have seen him in a negative light.
While I do not know what became of him, the court, prison, and parole system released him to rejoin society. Our time together was work-related and respectful. Ostracizing him would not bring someone’s father back. The family who lost a loved one to a senseless act committed by a young man I am sure felt that his release was a miscarriage of justice.
In my management career, the confidentiality of personnel matters was critical for all involved. Investigating complaints and dealing with discipline in the workplace is best kept private even if our curiosity wants to know all the details.
We need to get beyond the idea that we are living in a reality TV show needing to know all the salacious details for our daily personal drama dopamine fix. Institutions do not survive, grow, or thrive when everyone is playing “gotcha” publicly. When we do that, it is no longer about the ideas or policy changes under discussion – it is about bullying to get your way.
To the chagrin of some, the challenge that bills SB 5644 and HB 1769 undertake is to assure privacy for juvenile transgressors of some criminal acts. Counseling and supervision given in privacy are necessary tools when encouraging someone to give up their square peg activities to get them on a better path in life.
Will it work for all perpetrators who have had their records sealed? No. Still, the bills are about assuring privacy, limiting public disclosure consequences, and reducing the potential baggage that may prevent growth and reform – as long as the privilege is earned.
Be careful of what we wish for — keeping records unsealed, not working in the best interest of reform, and not getting transgressing juveniles on a better path will create adult criminals with nothing to lose. Privacy with supervision is often the best tool for helping someone alter their behavior and moving them toward a positive adult journey.
Crime and the solutions for adjudicating, punishing, rehabilitating, and returning a juvenile with sealed records to being a viable member of society are perplexing and sometimes without satisfaction. Some members of our society see a problem instead of seeing the future potential of the juvenile. Justice may be blind, but then again, privacy earned and respected is often opaque.
Keith Livingston is a retired municipal management professional, lifelong artist and Federal Way resident. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org