After a controversial sexual assault case caught national attention, Jefferson County Attorney Mike O’Connell announced Wednesday that he is crafting legislation to lift confidentiality in Kentucky Juvenile Courts.
Earlier this week, 17-year-old Savannah Dietrich faced a contempt charge for revealing the names of two boys who were found guilty of sexually assaulting her last year. Dietrich was upset with the plea bargain prosecutors made and revealed her attackers names via Twitter, which violated a court order to keep that information confidential.
She faced a maximum 180 days in jail and a $500 fine, but the attorneys for the boys dropped the contempt charges earlier this week.
O'Connell says the case demonstrates the strict state law is out of date and that juvenile court should be open to the public.
“Kentucky is in a long standing minority in connection with that and I think it's out of step and time to have an open and honest and vigorous debate on this subject,” he says.
O'Connell told WFPL that he has begun lobbying state lawmakers in the Jefferson County delegation to change the law. He would not indicate which lawmakers he has contacted, but said the legislation will likely come before next year's General Assembly.
Those who favor confidentiality, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, often cite those rules were set up to protect juveniles. According to the ACLU, barring the public from juvenile records helps rehabilitate young people and not mark them for life.
“Today, anyone can search for juvenile offenders on court websites, and reporting agencies purchase access to juvenile court records,” ACLU staff attorney Vanessa Hernandez wrote in January. “Washington residents are routinely denied jobs, housing, and volunteer opportunities due to youthful transgressions. With juvenile arrest rates so high, thousands of young people are affected.”
But the county attorney's office cites an 82 percent increase in violent crimes committed by juveniles from 1993 to 2003 as a reason to make those cases public. According to O'Connell's office a fraction of those cases are sent to Circuit Court where proceedings are open to the public.
O'Connell says opening juvenile court up to public scrutiny will insure the accountability of judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys, adding it will alert the community to the presence of juveniles who commit violent crimes in the city.
“Times have changed,” he says. “The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges almost 15 years ago said the traditional notions of secrecy and confidentiality should be reexamined and relaxed to promote public confidence in the court's work. These are the judges and those most involved with the system that say it is time for more openness.”