BENTON TOWNSHIP — When juveniles become adults, their criminal records are wiped clean, right?
Not in Michigan, where teens automatically are charged as adults at 17.
“Your record doesn’t just drop off when you turn 17,” St. Joseph attorney Jason Engram said Saturday at The Collateral Consequences of a Juvenile Adjudication at Lake Michigan College in Benton Township. “You’d be surprised how many parents think and juveniles think that after 17, their record is cleared and magically floats off into a black hole somewhere.”
He said the consequences of a juvenile having a criminal record can be severe and lifelong. He said Michigan sentencing guidelines for adult felony charges take into account the person’s juvenile record.
“These things matter. They stay on your record. They can be used to enhance sentences later for felony prosecution,” he said.
Engram was among several speakers at the event, sponsored by the Benton Harbor-St. Joseph Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, The Criminal Issues Initiative and the Equal Access Initiative of the Committee on Justice Initiatives.
Larry Nolan, president of the State Bar of Michigan, said attorneys and court officials need to reach out to the public and clear up these fallacies.
“It’s important because it affects lives. Hundreds of lives. Thousands of lives,” he said.
Grand Rapids attorney Heather Garretson said juveniles must be made aware that their actions can have serious, lifelong consequences.
“If you get into a fight at school, that’s a school fight in your mind. That’s an assault in the mind of the court,” she said. “... Stealing somebody’s backpack is theft. Sending a picture of your girlfriend without a top on is child pornography. ... These actions can be prosecuted as crimes.”
She said these actions can result in a criminal record, which will make it more difficult to get a job, serve in the military, rent a house or be admitted to a college.
Garretson said another fallacy is that juvenile court records are kept confidential. She said they’re not. In fact, she said juveniles don’t have to be convicted of anything for their records to follow them.
“Arrest records, even if it doesn’t result in a conviction or juvenile adjudication, are open to the public in Michigan,” she said. “They’re not super easy to get. You have to FOIA them. But they’re not confidential.”
She said these things can linger in their lives forever. Not only can employers look at juvenile records, but state licensing boards can.
She said jobs that require a state license include physical therapists, registered nurses, carpenters and cosmetologists.
“Every single one of the licensing agencies ... get to look at the applicant’s good moral character,” she said. “They often decide that that includes juvenile adjudication and felonies.”
In addition, Engram said many people have the erroneous idea that juvenile court hearings are confidential.
“Hearings are public,” he said. “Anybody can walk into the court. Anybody can watch. ... It’s not closed.”
He said officials can request that a hearing be closed, but that’s not normal.
The good news is that juvenile records can be expunged as long as they have no more than three adjudications, with no more than one a felony adjudication.
“It’s shocking to me that more young people don’t take advantage of that opportunity,” Berrien County Assistant Prosecutor Russell Szwabowski said.
After the meeting, he said people who would like to get their juvenile records expunged can get information at the self-help desk on the second floor of the Berrien County Courthouse in St. Joseph. He said there are people there who can help them fill out the paperwork if necessary.