Addressing the Collateral Consequences of Convictions for Young Offenders

Ashley Nellis, PH.D.
September 8, 2011

Two million juveniles are arrested each year, and the collateral consequences they could face begin at this first point of contact with the system, regardless of whether charges are subsequently applied and the individual is convicted. People involved in the justice system encounter substantial challenges in gaining employment, civic participation, finding housing, applying to college, and accessing medical and mental health care. Placement on public registries such as sex offender registries are an increasingly common policy tools, despite lack of evidence of effectiveness and mounting evidence of harm.  

A popular area of focus among advocates, practitioners, law enforcement and right-minded policymakers over the past decade has been to strengthen reentry support so that the odds of recidivism and return to the system are minimized. Less attention has been paid to the consequences that accompany a juvenile conviction but young people as well as adults face system-imposed obstacles to success based on a delinquent or criminal record. 

The philosophical beginnings of the juvenile justice system rested on the notion that young people who became delinquent were amenable to reform and the system should respond by providing ample rehabilitation services. It was also emphasized that youth should be spared from the stigma of involvement with the adult criminal justice system and not be branded as “criminals.” Matters that were dealt with in the juvenile justice system were to be done so in an informal, non-adversarial, and highly confidential manner. 

The past two decades have brought a near reversal of this perspective, involving de-emphasis of youth privacy and heightened interest in public accountability. Short-term increases in crime, community fears about public safety, dire warnings from misguided policymakers, and the rise of the victims’ rights movement, shaped the belief that increased publicity around juvenile punishments would deter potential offenders and hold young people accountable for their actions. 

Today, sharing of sensitive information about adjudicated juveniles has become more common, and rules surrounding youth privacy and confidentiality have been promoted under the rationale of public safety. Records of delinquency are often accessible to potential employers and educational institutions, even if they have been officially expunged. Agencies enter into agreements to share delinquency data, school data, and family data freely. While information sharing is a useful tool to track youth across systems, the lack of discretion with which sensitive information is shared often outweighs any benefits. 

The expanding range of collateral sanctions that youth face is at direct odds with the original rehabilitative intent of the juvenile justice system. It is time to realign our society’s responses to delinquent youth. The following reforms are recommended to reduce the negative consequences of collateral sanctions for juveniles:

  • Reverse counterproductive school-based policies such as “zero tolerance” that disengage youth from school;
  • Ensure expungement for juvenile records;
  • Prohibit inclusion of juvenile records on national and state offender registries;
  • Restrict non-relevant conviction questions from employment applications; and
  • Revise and expand reentry services and supports for youth.  

Download Dr. Nellis' article, "Addressing the Collateral Consequences of Convictions for Young Offenders," which appeared in The Champion, published by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.


Dr. Ashley Nellis has an academic and professional background in analyzing criminal justice policies and practice, and has extensive experience in analyzing disparities among youth of color in the juvenile justice system. She leads The Sentencing Project's research and legislative activities in juvenile justice reform and serves as the co-chair of the National Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Coalition, a collective of more than 50 national organizations working to ensure healthy families, build strong communities, and protect public safety. She regularly delivers testimony, authors articles and other publications, and conducts research. She is actively engaged in federal and state efforts to eliminate life without parole sentences for juveniles.

This article originally appeared in Reclaiming Futures.  It is reprinted here with permission.

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