Rethinking a law’s unintended consequences

Not everything works out the way it was intended.

From my perspective, a good example of that would be a state law enacted two years ago known as the Clean Slate for Kids law.

On the surface, it seems like a good piece of legislation designed to help juveniles get a firm foundation heading into adulthood. The law shields juvenile court records from following the child once they turn into an adult by making those records nonpublic.

I believe most of us would come down on the side of that logic being a good thing.

But a byproduct of that law now shields records of juvenile court proceedings from public view. Only those with a “legitimate interest” are allowed access to the court records. The media and the public at large do not qualify as having “legitimate interest.”

Alpena News Publisher and Editor Justin Hinkley explained that the problem is that the court includes dockets in the list of records that are nonpublic, so there’s no way to know when a specific hearing is happening. A reporter or a member of the public would have to camp out in a courtroom each day and sit through every court proceeding — which remain open to the public, by law – to happen upon a case they were following.

The issue came to a head in Alpena County over a young boy, his slingshot, his sister, an alleged attempted kidnapping, and a defendant charged with that alleged kidnapping attempt.

The three people involved in that incident now have had their story shared in most newspapers across the U.S., on major broadcast network morning shows, and even global media markets have now reported on it.

When the alleged kidnapper — Noah Adkins, a 17-year-old — originally was charged as an adult, obviously his name was printed. It wasn’t until later that the case was moved to juvenile court, where he will be tried as a juvenile, that the focus then turned to that 2021 law that makes covering the trial for the public much more difficult.

And just like that, you have a legitimate news story that has received international attention being made very difficult to cover by credible news sources.

Notice I used the word “credible” in the preceding sentence. I used that word because, for sure, news of the court proceedings are going to be published on social media as people share their own perspectives of “what they heard” as being the gospel truth.

The rumor mill is going to have a heyday about the court proceedings. How much of that information is accurate and how much of it is a tall tale will remain to be seen.

Which is unfortunate. What was intended to be a law to protect a juvenile ultimately could end up really harming the youth because of inaccurate statements or embellished exaggerations that will surely circulate across the internet.

The best way to prevent that from happening is allowing the media to do their job with court reporting and not make that procedure more difficult for them.

A good friend of mine who I worked with tirelessly during my time in the state is Lisa McGraw, public affairs manager for the Michigan Press Association. When it comes to First Amendment issues and the Legislature, she is considered “the best of the best” in the country.

In discussing recently for an Alpena News story the Alpena County case and attempts judicial officials were trying to make to balance both the public’s and defendant’s rights in juvenile court, she said the public needs more access. She said the law needs to be fixed and she’s already begun conversations with the Attorney General’s Office to address the issue.

“I think it honestly highlights one of what we think are going to show up to be many flaws in this new law,” McGraw said in the news story. “This is a process that needs to be transparent.”

If you agree, write to your state legislator and share that opinion with them and ask them to take another look at the law and consider reworking portions of it.

It will be too late to help here. But it might prevent a similar incident from occurring someplace else in Michigan.

Bill Speer recently retired as the publisher and editor of The News. He can be reached at bspeer@thealpenanews.com.


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