Monday, May 29th, 2017

Unsealed Fate: The cycle of perpetual punishment for minors with criminal records

Mara Sanchez, Erica King, and Susan Hawes, co-authors on the Muskie School of Public Service report, pose for a photo with Danielle Layton, research analyst at Muskie School of Public Service and intern at Maine Inside Out (MIO), as well as other students from the MIO program, outside of the Osher Learning Institute on the USM Portland Campus.
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Mara Sanchez, Erica King, and Susan Hawes, co-authors on the Muskie School of Public Service report, pose for a photo with Danielle Layton, research analyst at Muskie School of Public Service and intern at Maine Inside Out (MIO), as well as other students from the MIO program, outside of the Osher Learning Institute on the USM Portland Campus.

Posted on May 04, 2017 in News
By Krysteana Scribner

Growing up, we look to our mentors for guidance and support, particularly from role models such as family and close friends. But what if we don’t have the support system we need to thrive as young adults, and turn to criminal behaviors as a way to cope with the struggles of our upbringing? For some young adults, the reality of a crime record will follow them throughout their life.

A report by the Muskie School of Public Service, published in March of this year, explored how the issue of unsealed criminal records for minors can have implications for individuals in Maine with a juvenile record.

The 82-page report, Unsealed Fate: The Unintended Consequences of Inadequate Safeguarding of Juvenile Records in Maine,” delves into the misconceptions surrounding the practice and ultimately aims to highlight how, regardless of rehabilitation efforts, these unsealed record can have consequences for minors beyond their time served.

People were experiencing consequences and punishment beyond what was handed down to the courts and I think common sense would tell you that’s what happens to people who are incarcerated,” said Mara Sanchez, a graduate assistant at the Muskie School of Public Service who helped with the research presented in the report. “Everybody is telling each other and believing that records are automatically sealed in one way or another and that just isn’t the case.”

The whole system, she stated, is very confusing: When a juvenile commits a crime, the records are not sealed away from the general public, and these records are taken into consideration in various aspects of their lives as they grow older, especially when applying for college or jobs.

College, housing, employment, getting a loan, buying a car, getting a cell phone to a certain extent, you gotta fill out an application…” she elaborated.

For one Portland local, Steve, the reality of a criminal record has followed him throughout his life. As a young adult, he was abused by his parents, who were both alcoholics. He experienced various forms of severe abuse and turned to criminal behavior as a cry for help.

“I’ve been through some crazy stuff, staying outside, running the streets at eight years old and couldn’t get back in. My mother would be drunk and lock the door and wouldn’t let us in,” Steve said. “As a teenager, I mostly committed simple assaults. I fought all the time.”

Sanchez explained that Steve’s experience isn’t unusual, as many of those who commit crimes are likely victims of crime themselves, especially of assaults.

Maine Inside Out, a community based organization in Portland, aims to work with Maine prisons to help young adults released from Long Creek re-enter the community. According to Danielle Layton, a research analyst at the Muskie School and intern at Maine Inside Out, the organization operates on the philosophy of transformative justice that works for kids who have been in the justice system.

She personally helps to co-facilitate the groups in the girls unit at Long Creek twice a week with another facilitator, who is currently working on an original play to highlight some of their own personal struggles with their juvenile crime experience.

“The target of the organization is to change the public perception of criminality and to change the way we go about justice and punishment, because it gives hope for a restorative transformed relationship with the community,” she said. “Even when harm occurs, we want to work to address the gaps or disconnections that preceded that harm.”

She also noted that many young adults with criminal records are labeled as the problem, but in reality, they went through a great deal before making those decisions. She explained that the theater performances act as a way to express those frustrations, and they become an outlet for the young adults to process what occurred and move forward in a way that can benefit themselves and their community.

“Nobody ends up in the juvenile system if they don’t have a difficult past. There is a strong intersection between being a victim of violence or a witness to violence, and to becoming involved in the criminal justice system yourself,” said Layton. “I see that intersection over and over and over again here at Maine Inside Out.”

Making a life outside of prison walls is difficult. Steve, who knows the criminal justice system first-hand, believes that the stresses that come with being integrated back into society are a large reason those who commit crimes go back to their old habits.

A lot of people promise you the world, I promised everybody in the world, ‘Oh when I get out this is my last time, this is never gonna happen I’m gonna do this I’m gonna do that’ because in prison you have a clean mind because that’s what you want to do,” he stated. “Unfortunately it goes back to not having money, a place to live, or direction when you get out.”

Layton explained that the stigma around those who commit crimes never goes away, which only worsens the exclusion of those with juvenile records. She said that the root of criminal activity is often issues at home. If unaddressed, the choice to commit a crime only adds more stress. When records pile up, opportunities are lost, and it can become hard to stay out of the system. Steve knows this first hand after attempting to apply for jobs that don’t require a college degree.

I couldn’t work at a regular job, I couldn’t work anywhere there are cash registers even though I’m a different person. They see that [I have a record] and say ‘oh no, no, we don’t want you.’”

The cycle of perpetual punishment forces young adults who commit crimes to pay the price for the rest of their lives, rather than propel themselves into a future where they could be a benefit to society.

There is a lot more that needs to be explored, but we couldn’t because it’s extremely difficult to talk to people who have juvenile records. We can’t just call them up, [and] there is no database we can get at,” said Sanchez.

While he is unable to make up for his lost time in jail, Steve hopes that one day, he can provide inmates like himself a place to reintegrate into society in ways he never had the chance to.

If [people] were given a chance to get out here, get taught a skill, and have a place to live and learn the value of money and how to manage money and everything else, [they] would have a much better shot to make it out here.”

* To protect the identity of individuals involved, the name of the Portland local was substituted to keep this individual’s anonymity.