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How to look inside the secret world of the juvenile justice system

By Tierra Smith

Correctional facilities tend to document everything. But it can be difficult for journalists to get records from the juvenile justice system because cases and incidents involving minors tend to be confidential.

Chad Day, a reporter for The Associated Press; Kim English of the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice; and Paula Lavigne, a reporter for ESPN, gave tips on how to get information about the juvenile justice system. Ted Gest of the Criminal Justice Journalists moderated the session.

Since there is a higher level of secrecy in the juvenile justice system, journalists must work harder to get the records they want.

Day suggested obtaining blank copies of all forms used by an agency, which will offer clues as to the kinds of information collected. When filing records requests, journalists can then specify the exact information they want using the terminology for particular forms and fields.

Negotiating with agencies to remove identifying information may help journalists get some data faster.

Lavigne advised journalists to seek incident-level data. This can be found in incident reports or logs, offense reports and call or response details. These forms are almost always filled out, even if no arrest is made.

Since many incidents don’t result in arrests or prosecution, this is a great place to start looking for crime patterns. Many sexual assault cases end at this point, too.

Incident reports can be found at the police department, sheriff’s office, state police department and 911 offices.  

“You would think that law enforcement and courts are working together when keeping records, but that’s completely not true,” Lavigne said.

Journalists must be willing and able to build their own databases from the information provided by law enforcement.

Lavigne said journalists should know their state’s laws “inside and out,” which will help when negotiating for information.

Tierra Smith is a graduate student at Louisiana State University. She is pursuing a master's in mass communication with plans to finish May 2017.

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