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Young offenders say database marks them with scarlet letter

Zachary Payne has a rap sheet that reads like it belongs to someone who’s spent more than 18 years on this earth.

“Four Minor in Possessions,” he recounts, “two retail frauds, resisting arrest, assaulting a police officer, assault and battery, like two or three domestic violences, and a couple other ones I can’t remember.”

Payne might not be able to remember them. But the Internet does.

ICHAT is the name of an online database that anyone with ten dollars can check, and they do - especially employers, looking to vet potential hires.

It's a common misconception that juvenile court records are sealed. But as Payne found out on a job interview, his record is public.

“I’ve pretty much applied at most places, and had interviews at most of them,” he says. “I got to a third interview at Meijer but they shot me down because they did an ICHAT search.”

Criminals, or juveniles?

The Michigan State Police administers the database. Officials there say the law is clear: if you got booked, and the prosecutor pursued charges against you, your criminal history gets logged into the system.

Frank Vandervort says that’s true, but kids who’ve gone through the juvenile court system are, by definition, not criminals.

Vandervort is a law professor at the University of Michigan. He says kids who’ve gone through the juvenile court system don’t have criminal convictions, they have what are called juvenile adjudications. He believes the Michigan State Police is misinterpreting the law.

Vandervort says anyone can go to the courthouse and pull a juvenile record. But he says putting the information online means more young people are getting locked out of employment, housing and other opportunities that could help keep them on the straight and narrow.

“For example, I had a kid in my office yesterday,” Vandervort says. “He’s 18 years old. When he was 16 he was caught stealing a candy bar. When he was 15 he got into a fistfight with another boy who was teasing him in gym class, and this kid now can’t get a job working in a manufacturing facility.”

Vandervort says the whole point of having a separate system for juveniles is to help steer kids into making better choices. To give them a second chance in the hopes they don’t become adult criminals.

Set up for failure?

“We are harming their future by putting a scarlet letter on their chest,” says Cass County Probate Judge Sue Dobrich.

“Historically, Michigan really felt that the purpose of juvenile court was a treatment,” says Dobrich,  a former prosecutor. “Even as late as 1991, the Michigan Supreme Court talked about Michigan juvenile court being one of making sure of making sure juveniles would be provided educational, social and employment opportunities.”

Dobrich and some other judges want the state Legislature to clarify the law to keep juvenile records out of the ICHAT database.

Unless and until that happens, some young people whose records prevent them from getting hired will look outside the regular job market for ways to make a living.

Zachary Payne has been using the moped his parents bought for him to run a taxi service for his friends. He reaches into his jeans and pulls out wads of bills.

“Let me see,” Payne says as he counts out his fares for the week. “$5, $10, $15, $20 … about $75 just from giving people rides on my moped.”

Payne says he knows he’s got other, more lucrative options.

“I have sold drugs before. It’s a lot easier than having a job,” he says. “There’s no taxes, you don’t have to fill out an application, you don’t have to go out on all these interviews. You just have to buy it for cheap and sell it for high.”

Payne says he plans to keep applying for legitimate jobs. But he says the system that was supposed to help him seems to have set him up for failure.

*This story was informed by the Public Insight Network. Share your story here.

Sarah Hulett is Michigan Public's Director of Amplify & Longform, helping reporters to do their best work.