The Eternal Criminal Record
The Eternal Criminal Record is the title of Professor James Jacobs’ new book, just out from Harvard University Press. This is the first comprehensive study of criminal records law and policy, and it deals with a range of contemporary legal and policy issues ranging from how records are created and disseminated, to how they are used by public and private actors, to how they are maintained and (perhaps) eventually sealed or destroyed. Professor Jacobs examines important jurisprudential issues such as the right to public access versus the right to privacy; the role of criminal records in punishment theory; how U.S. criminal record policy compares to other countries; and the intersection of public safety and fairness in imposing collateral consequences.
The book will be reviewed on this site in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, here is the publisher’s description of it.
For over sixty million Americans, possessing a criminal record overshadows everything else about their public identity. A rap sheet, or even a court appearance or background report that reveals a run-in with the law, can have fateful consequences for a person’s interactions with just about everyone else. The Eternal Criminal Record makes transparent a pervasive system of police databases and identity screening that has become a routine feature of American life.
The United States is unique in making criminal information easy to obtain by employers, landlords, neighbors, even cyberstalkers. Its nationally integrated rap-sheet system is second to none as an effective law enforcement tool, but it has also facilitated the transfer of ever more sensitive information into the public domain. While there are good reasons for a person’s criminal past to be public knowledge, records of arrests that fail to result in convictions are of questionable benefit. Simply by placing someone under arrest, a police officer has the power to tag a person with a legal history that effectively incriminates him or her for life.
In James Jacobs’s view, law-abiding citizens have a right to know when individuals in their community or workplace represent a potential threat. But convicted persons have rights, too. Jacobs closely examines the problems created by erroneous record keeping, critiques the way the records of individuals who go years without a new conviction are expunged, and proposes strategies for eliminating discrimination based on criminal history, such as certifying the records of those who have demonstrated their rehabilitation.
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