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Advocates fight to erase shadow of juvenile court records

Jamel Bonilla, 23, who works at Cafe Utec, in Lowell, was 17 when he was charged as an adult with armed robbery and possession of an illegal firearm. Mary Schwalm for The Boston Globe

Ashlie Tyler grew up in a tough section of Roxbury, and, after a rough start, was determined to excel. By age 14, she had a job. At her high school graduation, she was valedictorian. She went on to study psychology at Duke University. After graduating in 2010, she moved to Chicago to work with at-risk youth.

There was a lingering shadow amid her achievements.

At age 12, Tyler had gotten into a fight and was charged with two counts of assault and battery. She served her punishment — probation — and when she was 22, after years of successes, she filled out the paperwork to seal her juvenile record.


She thought she’d put her past behind her — until last October, when the arrest resurfaced in a background check for work.

“My heart sank,” said Tyler, 28. “I thought this must be a mistake.”

She soon learned that Massachusetts is one of at least 19 states that do not allow people to expunge their juvenile records. Even when the details of an arrest are sealed from public view, the record of the arrest remains accessible.

A report issued by the Juvenile Law Center in 2014 ranked Massachusetts well below the national average in keeping juvenile records private, in part because the records “can never be physically destroyed.”

Advocates are hoping that will soon change, even as the clock winds down on the current legislative session.

Last week, the state Senate voted overwhelmingly in support of a bill that would allow people with juvenile records to ask a judge to permanently remove misdemeanor offenses from their records.

The judge could consider erasing records of offenses committed before a defendant turned 18, but only after any sentence is served and provided no new offenses are committed.

The bill would also raise the minimum age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 11 and ban automatic shackling of children in court except when there is concern about safety or flight risk.


Advocates are now urging the House to take up the bill, but with the formal session concluding in a matter of days, it appears unlikely.

The House was already considering a bill that would allow juvenile records to be completely expunged only if they include a “factually inaccurate complaint” or if the defendant was a victim of human trafficking and had been charged with possession of drugs or prostitution. The bill remains in committee.

Representative Kay Khan, a Newton Democrat who had sponsored a broad expungement bill, said she’d like to add language that matches the Senate bill to the House bill already under consideration, but that doing so before the session ends could be a long shot.

“I’m hopeful we can move something forward,” Khan said. “It’s late now; not a whole lot of time to accomplish a whole lot.”

The bills are part of a broader reform effort in which lawmakers are reconsidering mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders and an overhaul of the state’s bail system, among other changes.

Some 17,000 youths come into contact with the juvenile justice system in Massachusetts each year, according to Senator Karen E. Spilka, an Ashland Democrat who sponsored the bill to expunge misdemeanor arrests.

“Juvenile records sometimes follow [offenders] into adulthood, even though they’re not supposed to,” Spilka said. “It can limit their ability to obtain jobs and pursue higher education.”


While advocates and others favor erasing juvenile criminal records — “You should always give kids a second chance,” said Robert Harnais, president of the Massachusetts Bar Association — prosecutors who oppose the efforts say they are concerned about public safety.

“If you have subsequent convictions, at sentencing time the court needs to be aware of those prior convictions,” said Berkshire District Attorney David F. Capeless, president of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association.

Capeless said that instead of allowing the courts to erase a criminal record, employers should be encouraged to give a person with a criminal record a chance. But employers and others have a right to know that a record exists, he said.

“The fact they committed an offense says something about them as a person,” Capeless said. “We’re more concerned about protecting someone who committed a crime. I don’t think it’s right to blind people from what may be an important consideration for them.”

But Senator William N. Brownsberger, cochairman of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary and a Belmont Democrat, said the Senate bill doesn’t go far enough to help young people who have had contact with the criminal justice system.

“There are great many young people ages 19, 20, and 22 who are still not mature and still make mistakes that can harm them for life and we need to look at protecting them further,” Brownsberger said. “The protections that exist for juveniles and that we voted to strengthen are very important, but do not reach many of the young people.”


For example, the Senate bill would not help Jamel Bonilla, 23, of Lawrence, who was 17 when he was charged as an adult with armed robbery and possession of an illegal firearm — violent felony offenses.

Spilka’s original proposal would have included Bonilla and others charged as adults with felonies when they were teenagers. But some senators balked and the provision was removed.

“If you have a dream you can’t chase it,” Bonilla said. “You can’t have it because you have a record.”

Bonilla is continuing to work toward shielding juvenile records from the public.

After Tyler had her record sealed, she never imagined it would later become an issue. When her employer in Chicago came across her juvenile arrest, Tyler hired a lawyer in Boston and spent nearly two months trying to unseal her record so that her employer could review the details of the case and she could prove that it had been a minor infraction. Ironically, sealing her record when she was younger made things more difficult for Tyler.

Even though the record still existed, there was no longer a docket number associated with it, making it impossible to locate the file. Her attorney instead tracked down the case files of her co-defendants. She was able to keep her job, but the ordeal was embarrassing.

“It’s not something I want to have come up or [my employer] think of when he thinks of me,” Tyler said.


Advocates say that cases like Tyler’s aren’t uncommon and that sealed records end up leading to speculation about a person’s record. Ninety-five percent of juveniles who are arrested are charged with nonviolent offenses, according to the Juvenile Justice Law Center.

Jan Ransom can be reached at jan.ransom@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Jan_Ransom.

Correction: Due to a reporting error, the Globe misspelled the name of Representative Kay Khan.