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Sealed Records Open for View

Washington state has over 5,500 sealed juvenile records that are once again accessible to law enforcement agencies across the nation after a last-minute amendment for “officer safety” was added to a 2015 bipartisan sentencing reformation bill.

Tony Calero conducted an analysis when he was a graduate student in 2013 of Washington’s record-sealing process and found that only 7.5 percent of those eligible went through the long, costly, and difficult process of having their juvenile record sealed, with young black people the least likely to do so.

So state legislators passed a law in 2014 that automatically sealed a juvenile’s record once they turned 18 unless it was contested — or the crime was one of the felony exceptions. Previous fines and court costs were to be paid before the process was initiated. The next year, legislators went one step further, passing the Youth Equality and Reintegration (“YEAR”) Act that waived all court costs and fines to help establish a fresh start.

Republican Senator Steve O’Ban added an “11th hour” amendment to the Act that would allow certain law enforcement agencies to view sealed juvenile records during traffic stops for safety.

Attorney Hillary Madsen, YEAR’s original crafter and lobbyist, opposed the amendment but thought it prudent to accept it. “There are so many reasons why police officers shouldn’t have these records,” she said. “There’s the fact that a clean slate should mean a clean slate, that there’s not a safety issue, that there is instead this opportunity for bias.”

“The choice [though] would have been, do we want to try to kill our own bill or do we let it go with this? And I don’t think that anybody at the time could have predicted what ultimately happened.”

WASIS, the state patrol’s electronic identification database was updated July 24, 2015, with cases sealed between 1978 and 2015. As a consequence, people have had their “sealed” records used against them attempting to gain employment or a promotion, renew border passes, and obtain carry permits. Whatcom County clerk Dave Reynolds now provides certified letters to those who have been affected stating that their record was sealed and the claimant can legally say that they have no criminal record.

Patty Kuderer (D-Bellevue) is working to pass a bill limiting law enforcement’s ability to view records after five years post-adjudication to offset these consequences. 


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