With the Texas Legislature now in session, bipartisan cooperation is key to legislative successes.
State Rep. James White, R-Tyler, vice chairman of the Corrections Committee, has proposed an advisory committee, HB431, to explore the protections provided for juvenile records. He specifies that the committee will consist of stakeholders in the issue, such as juvenile prosecutors and defenders, probation officers, representatives from the Department of Family and Protective Services, as well as members of the general public. This group is intended to protect young offenders from harm resulting from unauthorized use or disclosure of confidential records, while ensuring public safety and due process rights.
Simultaneously, state Rep. Borris Miles, D-Houston, has filed a bill, HB263, that also moves toward sealing juvenile records, after a significant period of good behavior. This would only be available for juveniles who committed delinquent acts, or conduct in need of supervision — not juveniles deemed violent offenders.
These bills acknowledge the strong incentives that taxpayers and communities must provide in order to help those who make mistakes in their youth to start anew. Both bills focus on offenders who committed nonviolent crimes, and stress rehabilitation and opportunities, instead of a repeated cycle of criminal offenses and expenses.
Juveniles are a unique opportunity for the criminal justice system. Once someone has had contact with the system, there is a risk for a cycle of criminality. However, juveniles present the system with a great opportunity to end this cycle before it can get started. This is because juveniles are at a significant and critical time of life. If a juvenile offender takes their life in the right direction, they still have valuable educational and vocational choices still ahead of them. If they take advantage of these opportunities, they may never see the inside of a corrections facility again. Instead, they can become hard-working, contributing members of society.
However, this possibility is strongly affected by the record that follows the individual. If they are unable to get a job, or be accepted at schools that will prepare them for a successful, contributory life, then they are more likely to resort to crime again, and in an escalating fashion. Such a cycle creates new victims and raises the amount of public monies spent on this juvenile.
Both bills agree that low-risk, nonviolent juvenile offenders who have proven their desire to turn their lives around should have the opportunity to do so without forever being branded a criminal. Providing protections around their records makes it more likely that this will be the case.
There are serious considerations to be weighed when dealing with criminal records. Judicial discretion is important, and the ability for a judge to look into the specifics of a case is invaluable. However, dangerous youths who are a high-risk are very different from juveniles who have missed a few days of school or engaged in minor vandalism. There are always public safety questions at play but these bills work to increase public safety and save taxpayer money.
Such bipartisan collaboration shows a public tired of funding a prison system that cycles criminals through without addressing safety or costs. It also offers opportunity and redemption to youth across Texas.