Bill would keep Iowa juvenile records confidential

Supporters say minor offenses can limit opportunities later in life

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DES MOINES — A proposal to keep juvenile criminal records confidential gained early approval Wednesday by a panel of state lawmakers.

Lawmakers advanced legislation that would make juvenile criminal records confidential unless otherwise ordered by a judge.

Roughly two dozen individuals and organizations spoke in favor of the legislation, which is one of multiple criminal justice reform proposals working through legislative channels this session.

Supporters say minor offenses on juvenile criminal records can hinder an individual later in life from gaining employment or housing.

“It unduly harms children’s futures. It can keep them from getting jobs. It can hurt their prospects for college,” said Julie Smith, a lobbyist for the Middleton Center for Children’s Rights. “Once this information get out, it’s really hard to pull it back.”

The proposal was one of a handful made by a work group tasked last summer by Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad to examine potential criminal justice reforms.

Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP, was a member of that work group and spoke at Wednesday’s hearing in support of the legislation.

“We think the state currently has it wrong,” Andrews said.

As of 2014, nine states fully protected juvenile records from the public, while another 33 made only certain types of juvenile records public, according to the Juvenile Law Center.

Other than a few groups who had technical issues with the legislation, the only people who spoke in opposition represented media.

Lynn Hicks, the Des Moines Register’s opinion and engagement editor, said the bill “swings the pendulum too far in the direction of secrecy.”

“There is a reason why the court system and juvenile system is open. It needs to remain transparent and accountable,” Hicks said.

A Branstad representative said the governor supports the legislation’s goal. Representatives for the state attorney general’s office and county attorneys expressed support in the goal but concerns with the bill.

Kelly Meyers, a lobbyist for the Iowa County Attorneys Association, suggested the bill should exempt felonies so serious crimes are not shielded from the public.

“We’re supportive of the notion that a minor offense in a juvenile’s past should not haunt them for the rest of their life,” Meyer said. “That being said, this bill would make (juvenile records) confidential for a 15- or 16-year-old who committed murder.”

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