Ever do something really foolish as a teenager? Spray-paint the water tower? Jump the turnstile? Take the neighbor’s car for a joy ride?

Those and any number of other stupid mistakes are made by teenagers over and over in every corner of Illinois. Nearly every one of those kids will grow out of it and grow up to become crime-free, even productive, citizens.

OPINION

But actions like that can be life-changing — and not in a good way — for those who end up in a police station and possibly in juvenile detention.

About 24,000 kids in Illinois are arrested every year, and the overwhelming majority of them will carry that arrest record around with them for the rest of their lives. Juvenile arrest records are widely available to many in Illinois, and confidentiality requirements are not enforced.

While expunging a record is one way to overcome the problems caused by improper sharing of records, Illinois law and procedure is so difficult and restrictive that only three in every 1,000 juvenile arrests are expunged. Half of the 102 counties in Illinois reported zero juvenile expungements in the past decade.

As a result, Illinois has one of the worst track records in the country for keeping juvenile justice records private and for helping youth clear their records.

However, that will change if Gov. Bruce Rauner signs reform legislation (House Bill 3817) that the General Assembly recently passed at the urging of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. The bill would correct many of the problems identified in the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission’s 2016 report “Burdened for Life” — a thoroughly researched study detailing the problems with the state’s confidentiality and expungement laws and practices.

If Rauner signs HB 3817, the Youth Opportunity and Fairness Act, much of the burden on these young people will be lifted:

  • There would be automatic, cost-free expungement of records of juvenile arrests that do not lead to charges and of those charges that are dismissed or result in an acquittal.
  • For non-violent charges resulting in a finding of guilt, automatic expungement would occur after a reasonable waiting period.
  • The law would make clear that job applicants and others asked about criminal “convictions” would not have to report “juvenile court adjudications.”
  • The confidentiality protections of the Juvenile Court Act would be extended to include municipal ordinance violations.
  • For the first time, the state would impose penalties for willful, illegal disclosure of confidential juvenile records.

By signing this legislation, Gov. Rauner can give encouragement to people who made mistakes as kids and help them become productive members of society – a benefit to all of us and to the safety of our neighborhoods.

Julie L. Biehl is Clinical Associate Professor of Law and Director of the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law.