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Doing crime in secret

February 18, 1997

A lot of them have no respect for themselves, let alone anyone else, and as for the innocence associated with childhood, they lost that a long time ago. We're talking about the increasing number of juveniles involved in crimes, juveniles who may soon lose the shield of anonymity they now have under West Virginia law.

Two Kanawha County delegates this week introduced separate bills that would remove the veil of secrecy that now protects juvenile records. Del. Jon Amores' bill would allow release of the names of juvenile suspects over age 10 who are charged with certain crimes including murder, assault, sexual assault, incest or any crimes that would be a felony if committed by an adult with a handgun or other weapon.

State Sen. Vic Sprouse's bill is simpler, calling for an end to all secrecy, no matter what the crime. We're not sure either bill is the answer, although both sponsors are correct in their underlying assumption that just because secrecy for juvenile cases is a time-honored tradition doesn't mean it can't be debated.

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The most compelling argument in favor of modifying the law is the protection of the public. Most people would want to know if an adult neighbor had been charged with sexual assault, for example. If the suspect is a teenager, does that make the "need to know" any less urgent?

On the other hand, once a juvenile crime report is in the public record, it will most likely be entered in a data bank that will follow the suspect all of his or her life, and beyond. Should every youthful mistake be on the record forever, as Sprouse's bill would require? Should a child who is easily led have to become an adult whose juvenile failings are never forgotten?

We recommend compromise. Open the records of those charged in violent crimes, or offenses committed with weapons. For crimes against property - theft, vandalism and the like - keep the young suspects' identity secret. Perhaps one last chance won't make a difference, but until things get a lot worse, we don't favor branding every child who runs afoul of the law for life.

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