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Editorial: Beware of easy answers

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In the wake of the controversy surrounding the death of Patrick Dorismond, Assemblyman William Scarborough (D-St. Albans) has introduced legislation that would require the police and courts to destroy all arrest records when the person arrested is not formally charged.

Scarborough claims that these records, even when they are "sealed," can surface during a background search.

He argued that young black men are often arrested in error and that, even when the charges are dropped, the arrest can come back to haunt them.

The bill was first introduced in January. Scarborough believes it became urgent after Mayor Giuliani revealed sealed information about Dorismond's juvenile record.

As a teenager, Dorismond was arrested for violent crimes but not prosecuted. The mayor said he did not break the law in revealing this information because the seal on records is no longer binding after a person dies.

In fact, the Family Court Act is ambiguous about whether or not the confidentiality attached to sealed records continues after death. The city's Corporation Counsel argues that the intent of sealing the records was to protect a person from discrimination when they apply for employment or a loan. This was clearly the primary concern of the legislature when it passed this law.

And the legislation has worked well. Employers, with few exceptions, are not given access to these records.

A young man with a Family Court record, even a conviction, can confidently tell a prospective employer that he has no criminal record without fear of contradiction.

Most people involved in the criminal justice system take the confidentiality of Family Court records very seriously. Nevertheless, the Legislature should add language to make certain that the seal continues after death and should spell out the penalties for breaking that seal.

At an Assembly hearing last Friday, Police Commissioner Howard Safir said he could only think of four occasions when juvenile records were revealed by the NYPD. In each case, the subject of the records had been killed by the police.

One has to wonder if Scarborough isn't tilting at windmills, solving a problem that exists almost entirely in theory and not in fact. The real question is why these records are retained in the first place, particularly when a case is closed. Police say the information, even when formal charges are not brought, can be useful in solving new crimes. For example, a warrant squad can learn whether a suspect is alleged to have carried a weapon in the past, even if the suspect was never convicted.

Does the potential value of such information in future law enforcement outweigh the risks to innocent citizens?

We don't pretend that's an easy question to answer, but it is certainly one that we hope Scarborough and his fellow legislators will ask before voting on this bill.

Democracy Queens style

Malcolm Smith is going to Albany as the state's newest senator. But Mr. Smith can hardly claim a mandate. Less than 5 percent of the registered voters showed up for the special election last week. Nearly 90 percent of those people voted for Smith. The rest of the votes were split between the Right to Life candidate and the liberal Party candidate.

Cynthia Jenkins, the only person who might have given Smith a challenge, was thrown off the ballot two weeks before the election. The Queens Democratic Machine does not tolerate competition.

This is what passes for democracy in Queens.

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