Speaking at a panel last night hosted by the Council for Court Excellence, attorneys who work with youth offenders questioned the wisdom of a new statute expanding public access to juvenile court records.
The law, which went into effect March 8, allows limited access to court information on juveniles found guilty of violent crimes - and other felonies, under certain circumstances - after the case is closed. The text of the “Expanding Access to Juvenile Records Amendment Act of 2010” can be found here (PDF).
Panelist Hannah McElhinny, deputy trial chief in the Public Defender Service’s juvenile section, said she believed little good could come from the new law. Releasing identifying information about juveniles risks their rehabilitation, she said, since it opens the door to prejudice at school and in finding work.
“Lots and lots of people can be swept up in this,” she said.
The law will also offer police and local social service agencies greater access to juvenile offender records.
McElhinny was joined in her dissent by fellow panelists Robert Hildum, former director of the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services and now a deputy D.C. Attorney General, and Daniel Okonkwo, executive director of D.C. Lawyers for Youth.
Washington Post editor Henri Cauvin led the discussion, which was held at the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. The panel also included D.C. Superior Court Judge Zoe Bush; former Washington City Paper reporter Jason Cherkis, now with the Huffington Post; and Dr. Jennifer Woolard, an expert in adolescent development at Georgetown University.
Cherkis, who covered city social services at the City Paper, came to the law’s defense, arguing that more transparency was needed to shed light on deficiencies within the city’s social service agencies.
Reporters covering juvenile proceedings are bound by a confidentiality agreement to not reveal any identifying information about youths or their families, but can otherwise reveal a wide range of often sensitive information that comes out in court. McElhinny noted that that law poses a new dilemma for media outlets if they cover proceedings – without naming the youth – and then the name becomes publicly available after.
Bush, the presiding Family Court judge, declined to take a side, but expressed her support for press coverage of juvenile proceedings.
“It personalizes it and it makes it more meaningful” beyond reporting hard statistics, she said.