Change the juvenile privacy law

As it stands, juvenile court is open to the public, but the public has no way of knowing when a particular juvenile case will be in court.

That’s because of a 2021 state law, known as Clean Slate for Kids, that shields juvenile court records from public view. Court officials in Alpena County take that law to mean even court dockets — the courtroom schedule — cannot be made public.

So, while the law and Michigan court rules explicitly say juvenile court proceedings are open to the public, the public can’t plan to attend a particular hearing because the court won’t post a docket.

Alpena County court officials have offered a compromise and will post juvenile court dockets that do not include any names or other case information. At least the public will be able to know when juvenile court is in session, but still won’t be able to plan to attend a specific hearing because the dockets won’t say if that particular case will be heard.

We appreciate the effort toward transparency and understand local court officials are just trying to follow the letter of the law.

We think it’s time for that law to change.

If juvenile court hearings remain open to the public — as they should, so the public can judge whether justice is being properly carried out — then the dockets letting the public know about those hearings should be public, too. The law should be amended to specifically allow courts to post dockets that include names and case numbers — both of which would be discussed in the public court hearing, anyway.

The law was designed so youthful indiscretions don’t follow kids into adulthood on their permanent public record. It allows kids who make mistakes to have a second chance at living a clean life by making sure future employers or others can’t access juvenile court records.

That is a noble goal, but the public shouldn’t have to sit around in a courtroom hoping the case they care about gets called.

Allowing the public to attend court hearings maintains a fair process. It allows the public to gauge the activities of the judge and the prosecutor, both of whom are elected. It allows the public to measure defense attorneys, who often are paid with public funds because court-appointed attorneys handle the majority of criminal matters. It allows the public to learn the details of public safety issues.

It should be easy for the public to attend hearings they care about.

It’s time to change the law.


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