Making a List

THE MINNESOTA legislature is working on a proposal that would go a long way toward shifting the criminal justice system's view of juveniles--away from the long-held notion that juvenile records ought to be kept out of broad circulation and wiped from the record once someone becomes an adult, and toward a more punitive approach. Lawmakers are in the last phase of a plan, initiated two years ago, to put together the state's first centralized database on juvenile criminal information at the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

The BCA has maintained a centralized database on adult records since the late 1920s; officials, and even the public in some cases, have been able to access the information without much trouble. Karen McDonald, the BCA's director of Criminal Justice Informa-tion Systems, estimates that by the end of 1996 it'll be just as easy to get to juvenile records. It's an idea that's raised a few eyebrows, particularly among privacy advocates and those juvenile justice traditionalists who point out that most youths don't reoffend and shouldn't have their permanent records colored by juvenile offenses.

The plan takes records out of the realm of juvenile courts, warns citizen lobbyist Richard Neumeister, and creates a source of information that will surely find new uses in the future. "For years," he says, "the court has had control of who gets access to the records. There will no longer be control like there has been." Don Gemberling, director of Minnesota's Public Information Policy Analysis Division, adds that though the database would be classified as private for most purposes, "with computerization, it just becomes more easily accessible. Then the pressure is on for the public, particularly prospective employers, to have access. You don't have to go to 87 counties, you just go to the BCA."

Legislators have their hearts set on the database, which promises to include 18,000 new offenses every year, so most of the discussion has centered on specifics: What information will be kept, and for how long? There are two proposals making their way around the Capitol: the Senate file authored by Sen. Jane Ranum (DFL-Mpls.) and the House version--which was recently attached to a larger data-practices bill--by Rep. Wes Skoglund (DFL-Mpls.). Both agree that records of gross misdemeanor and felony offenders--including name, date of birth, and fingerprints--should be included. And both agree that such records should be kept until offenders are 28.

But that's where the two proposals diverge. While the House version requires keeping records of arrested juveniles until they turn 18, even if they are found not guilty or the charges are dropped, the Senate file would require that records be erased in those situations. The differences in the Senate version came partly at the behest of Hennepin County Judge Tanya Bransford, who serves on the Minnesota Supreme Court Task Force on Racial Bias implementation committee. "The proposed law apparently assumes that an arrest or allegation is the equivalent of an adjudication," she wrote to Ranum early last month. "Since the majority of children stopped and arrested by police are children of color; the B.C.A.... would be mandated to collect and keep a database that would be disproportionately children of color who have not been found guilty of anything in a court of law."

Neumeister points out that neither bill takes into account the technical difficulties in managing an accurate database. The BCA found itself in hot water over inaccurate records a few years back; McDonald says the agency has since worked out the bugs. "We do, however, have another problem," she says, "and that is linking dispositions to arrest. Sometimes we get the arrest information in on a fingerprint card and then we get the disposition and the numbers don't follow through. Sometimes we get the disposition and don't have an arrest record."

The Senate version also includes language designed to forestall one traditional means used by employers, landlords, and others to get around privacy statutes in the past: Informa-tion release forms will not give the BCA power to give away data on juveniles. "It's my hope," says Ranum, "that we will be able to persuade our colleagues in the House that this is the road to take." Skoglund couldn't be reached for comment, but the bills are expected to be hashed out during conference committee meetings in the coming weeks.

 
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