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Difficult Access to Juvenile Court Records Concerns Some

Posted March 28, 2008

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— Access to juvenile court records of people being processed in the adult-court system is difficult and a concern, says Durham County's Board of Commissioners chairwoman and other county officials.

Chairwoman Ellen Reckhow hopes state lawmakers will study the probation system and the transfer of that information.

In a study presented to lawmakers last year, 52 percent of juvenile offenders were arrested at least once after passing into the jurisdiction of the adult-court system. Most of those were 16 to 18 years old when arrested.

Juvenile records aren't public. The North Carolina Juvenile Defender's Office says the system is set up to give juveniles a fresh start in adulthood, whether it be to join the military, to go to college or to get a job.

Prosecutors say they have a difficult time getting access to the records if the person lands in adult court, however. A court order is needed to review them, and it is at the discretion of the presiding judge whether to allow them in open court.

"Right now, there's a firewall between juvenile and adult court," Reckhow said.

Durham County District Attorney David Saacks says he would like to see a change in state law – at a minimum, notification for prosecutors in the adult system when a defendant has spent time in a juvenile detention center.

He says prosecutors sometimes find out about juvenile records through word of mouth from police and probation officers.

"It may be that some change is needed to strengthen the system," said Eric Zogry, a juvenile defender with the state's juvenile defender's office.

He welcomes review, but says prosecutors can get to the information they need.

"If there are any gaps, it's due to the fact that the system is woefully underfunded, as a whole," Zogry said.

Laurence Lovette Jr. – a Durham teenager charged with first-degree murder in the shooting deaths of Duke University graduate student Abhijit Mahato in January and University of North Carolina senior Eve Carson in March – spent time in a facility for juvenile offenders.

He also was arrested later and had been released from jail on adult probation Jan. 16, two days before Mahato was found dead in his apartment a few blocks south of Duke's campus.

In the first two months Lovette, 17, spent on adult probation, he was arrested on charges of first-degree burglary, felony larceny of a motor vehicle, larceny after breaking and entering, possession of a stolen vehicle and resisting an officer.

He was out on bond when he was arrested March 13 in Mahato's and Carson's deaths.

It's unclear if the courts referenced his juvenile record before setting his bond. That information could be released next week as part of an internal investigation by the North Carolina Department of Correction's Division of Community Corrections, which runs the probation system.

Reckhow believes the courts could benefit from knowing that kind of immediately, however.

"Some better communication between the court systems makes sense to me, and I hope lawmakers look at that," Reckhow said.

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