Should there be easier access to juvenile court records?
Posted December 21, 2008 10:55 p.m. EST
Updated March 9, 2009 5:09 p.m. EDT
Raleigh, N.C. — Whether to allow public access to court records for juveniles if they are later prosecuted in the adult-court system is a growing concern.
Last year, juveniles across North Carolina were charged in 41 first-degree murders, 31 cases of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill, 345 instances of robbery with a dangerous weapons and 1,964 breaking-and-entering offenses.
Generally, a juvenile case involves a person who is under the age of 16. The North Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice says that keeping the files private gives juveniles a fresh start in adulthood, whether it be to join the military, go to college or get a job.
Prosecutors say they have to have a way through that wall of privacy.
“We desperately need some type of an automatic notification that a juvenile record exists once you get arrested as an adult,” Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said.
Prosecutors and judges have access to juveniles' felonies, but Willoughby said it is time consuming to pull the paper files for all cases.
“They can't expect people to spend 30 minutes or an hour on each one – when there may be nothing there. They wouldn't have time to do their jobs,” Willoughby said.
Because the records are only accessible during business hours, magistrates who set bond after arrests can't always see records either.
Laurence Lovette Jr. – a Durham man 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, one of those known as youth development centers
He 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, now 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 Carson's death.
Because of sealed juvenile records, prosecutors and judges likely didn't see Lovette's record when he was arrested three times in three months before his arrest for Carson's murder. After that arrest, he was charged with other unsolved crimes from Cary to Greensboro, including Mahato's murder.
If there was an alert system, perhaps Lovette would not have bonded out so easily after those initial arrests.
To better understand the juvenile system that Lovette was a part of, WRAL News talked to someone spending time at the Edgecombe Youth Development Center.
“I regret it,” Alvin said of his crime.
Alvin, whose last name WRAL agreed not to use because his case is still in the juvenile courts, was arrested for breaking and entering at age 12, assault on a police officer at age 17.
“If I knew then what I know now, I probably could have walked away from that police officer and told him to have a nice day, but I was stubborn because I had an attitude problem,” Alvin said.
With juvenile crime rates remaining flat over the last seven years, the state said its focus is shifting to reform. Edgecombe is one of four new facilities where the focus is on counseling, rather than confinement.
Alvin is working to turn his life around while at the Edgecombe facility. Since he was already in the juvenile system, his assault charge at the age of 17 had the option of being classified as a juvenile delinquency case.
Alvin said he plans to get his GED and hopes to join the Army.
For cases like Lovette's, the question remains: Should there be easy access to juvenile records when the offender gets arrested as an adult?
Juvenile public defender Eric Zogry said the law isn't always practical, but there is concern over what easier access could lead to.
Mental health evaluations that may or may not be relevant are also in juvenile files. What information and how it should be handled is a complicated question that has yet to be answered.
Probation Director Robert Guy told WRAL News Monday that this is the most dangerous juvenile population he has seen in 31 years. He also said he wants more access to files for his officers.