Distributional Consequences of Expunging Juvenile Crime Records: The Problem of Lemons
T. Markus Funk
Government of the United States of America - Department of Justice
Daniel D. Polsby
George Mason University School of Law
Washington University Journal of Urban and Contemporary Law, Vol. 14, No. 2 (1997).
1997 is shaping up to be a tough year for America's criminal youth. It has produced a true flurry of legislative action aimed at curbing juvenile crime that promises to significantly alter the juvenile justice landscape. One of the most notable legislative proposals seeks to sharply curtail the reach of state "expungement" laws that allow an individual to have his juvenile crime records destroyed or sealed once he (or, less likely, she) reaches majority. Today's expungement laws were enacted in the 1960s and 70s in an effort to reduce the stigma attached to having a juvenile conviction, thereby promoting rehabilitation and easing the transformation from juvenile delinquent to law-abiding citizen. Recent research established that the hubcap-stealing kids of days gone by are not the chronic and violent recidivists of the 1990's, however, and many argue that it is time that expungement laws be revised to take these change into account. This article examines the important distributional consequences of expungement statutes from the perspective of both sentencing judges and the juvenile offenders who appear before them. Such an examination brings to light the pernicious and unjust consequences that result from seemingly benign and well-intentioned attempts to reduce the stigma attached to juvenile adjudications by artificially cleaning the slates of serious young offenders, thereby rendering them equal and undifferentiated in the eyes of the law. Because the expungement of minor isolated crimes does not significantly impact the distributional consequences analyzed by the article, aggressive and non-aggressive expungement statutes must be distinguished, however. The article concludes that aggressive expungement statutes, inter alia, serve to perversely penalize law-abiding youths, while unjustly rewarding those who have elected not to conform their behavior to the dictates of the law during their minority. In light of these outcomes, a serious reexamination of contemporary expungement schemes is in order.
JEL Classification: K14Accepted Paper Series
Date posted: July 25, 1997
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