Do you have the right to know if young people are accused of crimes?

Vermont lawmakers are grappling with public’s right to know versus efforts to protect minors.
Published: Apr. 26, 2021 at 5:10 PM EDT|Updated: Apr. 27, 2021 at 6:50 PM EDT
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - A fatal crash in Putney is raising questions about protecting minors’ identities and balancing the public’s right to know.

The new push in the Legislature would shield the identities of young people involved in alleged crimes.

The proposal is one step forward in reforming Vermont’s youthful offender laws and reducing criminal justice spending.

But advocates for transparency are bristling at the prospect of hiding records of those sometimes involved in serious crimes.

In this weekend’s fatal crash in Putney, police released details of the incident but withheld the names of both minors, and the records will be shielded from the public if the case is heard in family court.

Vermont State Police have a temporary policy withholding the names of anyone under 20 involved in a criminal investigation.

That policy was put in place last fall after a 16-year-old driver killed an elderly couple in a wrong-way crash in Charlotte.

A bill in Montpelier looks to put that policy into law by hiding the names of anyone under the age of 20 from the original arrest and charging records, public records which in the digital age of social media and online news never go away.

“We don’t want people, first of all, to have records if they don’t need records. And secondly, we know that if whenever something like that gets in the paper, that is the end of the story,” said Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham County.

There are exemptions for releasing the names of missing kids and juveniles who are deemed to be a threat to the public, such as the 18-year-old alleged shooter at the University Mall in South Burlington earlier this year.

Law enforcement says the bill looks to clear up inconsistencies where minors named in press releases may later be charged with a crime in family court where the records stay private.

“And by extension, we are inadvertently giving publicity to something that is prohibited by statute,” Vt. Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling said.

But some are concerned about issues of transparency and accountability, saying the public has the right to know if someone has committed an egregious crime.

“These are publicly licensed drivers on a public highway and there’s a crash in which police, fire and public safety respond-- it’s tax dollars being spent,” said Mike Donoghue, the executive director of the Vermont Press Association.

Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George, who requested state police withhold the juvenile’s name in the Charlotte case last year, was not available for comment.

Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan says he supports the bill.

“What we’re trying to do is make the criminal justice system more responsive, more fair, more transparent but understanding those collateral impacts records have on people’s lives for the rest of their lives,” said Donovan, D-Vermont Attorney General.

The bill still has a way to go before it hits Gov. Phil Scott’s desk.

Lawmakers will continue testimony on the bill Tuesday.

Related Stories:

Community mourns Vermont teen killed in weekend crash

Teenager killed in Putney single-car crash

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