Many people believe that juvenile adjudications of delinquency are automatically expunged upon the youth reaching the age of majority. In reality, a juvenile adjudication of delinquency—especially for a felony—can significantly limit a teenager’s future ability to obtain student loans and scholarships, join the military, participate in athletics, become a firefighter or a law enforcement officer or obtain one of many jobs. As discussed herein, the majority of youth facing charges in delinquency court are suffering from severe socio-economic deprivation, are victims of emotional, physical or sexual abuse, or have serious mental health issues. Many youth caught up in the delinquency system are impacted by more than one of these factors, each of which places a teenager at significantly greater risk of engaging in delinquent behavior. Society tells these young people to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” but at the same time significantly limits their ability to do just that by labeling them felons—often violent felons—for the rest of their lives. This article argues that effectively foreclosing a young person’s future based upon behavior that is linked to circumstances beyond their control violates the Eighth Amendment’s proscription on cruel and unusual punishment. This article proposes an alternative framework that allows young people to have their juvenile records expunged if they fulfill certain criteria. This would benefit society as well as the young defendants, as it would lower the levels of adult recidivism.

This article proposes to add a new procedure in juvenile court that would recognize mitigation so that, in appropriate cases, the child’s juvenile record can be expunged. This would allow courts to address cases in which the child suffers from a mental illness that does not rise to the level of an insanity defense but is mitigating enough that it would violate the Eighth Amendment for the child to be found guilty of a felony that would remain on her record for the rest of her life. Similarly, children living in environments that cause the child to be significantly more likely to engage in delinquent behavior would be eligible to have their juvenile records expunged. This article proposes that, upon a plea or adjudication of delinquency at trial, the court should hear evidence on relevant mitigation. If the judge finds that the child’s behavior was significantly impacted by factors beyond her control including, but not limited to, mental health issues, child abuse and socio-economic factors, the child will be able to have her juvenile record expunged upon completing appropriate treatment and demonstrating improved behavior. This would refocus a system that has become increasingly punitive on the purported rehabilitative nature of juvenile court and allow children from disadvantaged backgrounds to lead productive adult lives unconstrained by mistakes they made as teenagers.