House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross conducts business during a legislative session, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023, at the State House in Augusta, Maine. Credit: Robert R. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — Children accused of Maine’s most serious crimes would have their court records kept confidential under a proposal opposed by prosecutors and news outlets in Maine.

The bill from House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, would go further than her 2021 law negotiated with prosecutors and the administration of Gov. Janet Mills. It restricted access to juvenile case records, but still allowed them to be disclosed in crimes that would be classified as murders or felonies if the defendant was an adult. That part would be reversed in the new bill.

The effort to keep more records sealed comes as advocates across the country argue leaving children’s criminal records public can cause young people to struggle to find work, education or housing as they become adults and seek to turn around their lives.

Maine law includes an exception for unsealing the records of children younger than 13. In those cases, a juvenile court only allows records to be public if someone submits a written request and a hearing is held to determine whether the public’s right to information “substantially outweighs” the juvenile’s privacy interests and that of any victims.

This balancing test has gone on since the founding of juvenile courts around the turn of the 20th century. Around that time, states generally had “less punitive and more therapeutic approach” for children charged with crimes and viewed keeping records private as essential to rehabilitation, the Juvenile Law Center said in a 2014 report

But legislatures placed harsher penalties on children convicted of crimes particularly during the 1980s and 1990s, an era marked by sensationalized stories of teenage “superpredators.” As of 2014, Maine was one of 30 states that made certain juvenile records available, the report said. 

Talbot Ross had to leave a Judiciary Committee hearing Monday before members took up her bill. But Rep. Matt Moonen, D-Portland, testified on her behalf about how the Democratic leader believes the issue of sealing juvenile records also could be handled by a sentencing guidelines commission that Talbot Ross has proposed under a separate bill.

Opponents to the proposal to seal juvenile records included two groups involved in the 2021 talks. Judy Meyer, executive editor of the Sun Journal, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel, said on behalf of the Maine Press Association that member newspapers believe Talbot Ross’ proposal rejects the “exhaustive work” done then. The Bangor Daily News is part of the group.

Tanya Pierson, assistant district attorney for York County, echoed that point, saying the talks two years ago balanced confidentiality with concerns for victims and public safety.

“Maine is currently far more progressive than many other states in protecting juvenile confidentiality,” Pierson told the Judiciary Committee.

Keeping a child’s criminal record private does not mean the record is expunged. In Maine, a person must still disclose a juvenile crime when answering questions from a court or law enforcement agency. Under the 2021 law, anyone who shares juvenile criminal records deemed confidential faces a maximum $1,000 fine. 

Talbot Ross’ proposal this year would also shield the records of any juvenile accused of murder or Class A, B and C felonies. Murder carries a penalty of 25 years to life in prison in Maine, while Class A crimes include rape and aggravated drug trafficking and carry up to 30-year sentences. Class B and C crimes can result in up to 10 and five years in prison, respectively.

Other states in recent years have taken steps to either open up or seal youth criminal records. Lawmakers have cited desires to treat serious offenders the same regardless of age or to offer more privacy and grace to younger offenders in hopes they will change for the better.

“The justice system’s retention of juvenile court records advances neither public safety concerns nor the important goal of giving youth room to reform,” the law center’s 2014 report said.

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Billy Kobin

Billy Kobin is a politics reporter who joined the Bangor Daily News in 2023. He grew up in Wisconsin and previously worked at The Indianapolis Star and The Courier Journal (Louisville, Ky.) after graduating...