Many parents believe that if their children get into legal trouble as juveniles, their offenses won't follow them into adulthood. That mistaken belief is even held and spread by some in the legal and law enforcement communities. That's because they are dealing with kids who are currently in the juvenile justice system. Many don't realize that when young offenders try to get into a university or find a job years later, their past can come back to haunt them.

Accessibility of Juvenile Records Varies by State

In the majority of states, juvenile criminal records are not automatically erased. They can and do follow young people into adulthood as they apply to universities, seek jobs or attempt to join the military. To make their juvenile records inaccessible, people need to take action themselves.

A report by the University of Southern Maine published last year looked at how each state handles juvenile criminal records. Only 12 states automatically seal or expunge them. In the remaining states and Washington, D.C., the juvenile offender and/or the court system must petition the state to make their records unavailable.

If your juvenile record isn't sealed or expunged, who can access it? That also depends on where it is. In 32 states, these records are available to the public. In the majority of those states and Washington D.C., the records can be accessed online. Even in the states where they aren't available to just anyone who searches for them, they can be found by college admissions officers, employers and military recruiters.

The Changing Focus of the Juvenile Justice System

One attorney says that the juvenile justice system is less prone to keep minors' records confidential than in the past. The system is not as protective of youth who get caught up in it as it used to be -- or of their privacy. It has become more similar to the adult criminal justice system, with an increasing focus on punishment.

The attorney, who works in juvenile law, notes that having a juvenile record can create a vicious cycle for young offenders.

This is just one more reason why it's important to take any run-ins your child has with the law seriously. Juvenile court is not "kiddie court." If your child already has a juvenile record or if you had one, find out what steps you may need to take to ensure that it is sealed or expunged as allowed under your state's law. A criminal defense attorney can provide guidance with this process.