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Originally published Thursday, March 7, 2013 at 11:00 PM

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State House passes bill to seal most juvenile-court records

House Bill 1651, which passed unanimously late Wednesday, would give more chances to juvenile criminals but would also deny access to information frequently requested by police, employers and reporters.

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

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OLYMPIA — A bill approved Wednesday by the state House would seal most juvenile-court records, potentially helping teenage criminals move on, but also hindering scrutiny of one of the most closely watched sectors of government.

House Bill 1651, which passed unanimously, would not affect cases involving the most serious violent and sexual crimes. But it would allow other juvenile proceedings with few publicly accessible records.

The cases would technically be open to the public, but there’d be essentially no record of them.

Under current law, the system is open but criminals, juvenile or otherwise, can petition to seal court records after a set amount of time.

That’s the way it works in many states, although many others routinely seal juvenile records.

The bill now moves to the state Senate, where its fate is uncertain.

Many lawmakers and critics have expressed concern that the proposal would take away valuable information from employers and landlords trying to get information about job and housing applicants, and from members of the media reporting on the juvenile-justice system.

“It’s not just a question about kids,” said Mike Fancher, a former Seattle Times executive editor who retired in 2008. “It’s also a question of the courts. It’s awfully hard to scrutinize the functioning of courts if they have the capacity to essentially close off access.”

Toby Nixon, of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, said the bill could run afoul of the state constitution’s provision that “all justice shall be administered openly.”

Several law-enforcement groups also oppose the bill.

The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Ruth Kagi, said the concerns should be outweighed by the value of correcting the “great injustice” that occurs when juveniles’ criminal records follow them through life.

“Teenagers make mistakes,” Kagi, D-Lake Forest Park, said in a speech. “They should pay for their mistakes. And they do. But when they have paid ... they should be allowed to move on with their lives.”

Republicans supported the bill after successfully adding more exemptions. They now include murder, manslaughter, rape, serious assault, arson and kidnapping.

Brian M. Rosenthal: 360-236-8267 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com.

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