In an age when juvenile crimes are capturing more attention than ever before, what good does it do to keep the problem hidden, swept into the dark corners of the judicial system?
The question has consumed Utah lawmakers in recent years. While teenagers are killing, maiming and firing guns indiscriminately, their court proceedings are closed to the public, and their names, in many cases, are kept quiet.Society once felt the need to protect a reformed delinquent from a criminal record that would tarnish him or her for life. Youthful indiscretions were considered easier to forgive and pardon, and the offenders were expected to reform as they matured. But times have changed. People no longer feel the need to overlook the more serious crimes.
Last year, lawmakers passed a reasonable bill that would have made trials and records of those 14 and older open, unless a judge had good reason to decide otherwise. But Gov. Mike Leavitt mysteriously vetoed the bill with little comment.
Now, a new bill is making its way through the Capitol. This time, it appears to have Leavitt's support. We hope so. Utah can ill-afford to keep its serious juvenile offenses secret much longer.
The bill, sponsored again this year by Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Holladay, would open court cases involving juveniles suspected of crimes classified as felonies or as class A or B misdemeanors. It would open most records involving these suspects, as well.
This issue often gets misrepresented. It has little to do with a perceived crime wave. Crime rates are in fact dropping in Utah and elsewhere, and only a handful of juvenile arrests are for violent crimes (although these tend to be shockingly violent). Instead, it has to do with accountability.
While stories of drive-by shootings, fatal schoolyard beatings, indiscriminate robberies and assaults fill the news media, the public often is shocked to learn that a criminal who passes into the age of adulthood has a rap sheet that includes 50 or more arrests. Naturally, the public has an interest in knowing more about how courts are treating young serious offenders.
Should these criminals be given preferential treatment because of their ages? Of course not. But an even more important question is, should the juvenile court system be spared public scrutiny? Again, the answer must be an absolute no.
Arent's bill would provide the public with important information. This year, it deserves to become law.