Nobody disputes that an enormous number of Americans have a criminal record. For people with a criminal past, a segment of the population that in some cases faces a laundry list of social and economic challenges, these records define – and limit – their ability to reintegrate into the community. This is a complex policy that has not received a fraction of the attention it deserves.
James Jacobs’ new book The Eternal Criminal Record (Harvard University Press, 2015) digs deeply into the issue with a nuanced analysis of how this system works. Importantly, the book provides a step-by-step navigation though the process of how and when records are created, how they are shared for and, eventually, what these data can be used for. What results is the most authoritative picture of how the pieces of the administrative universe of criminal history data fit together.
While criminal records can, and most often do, including information on past arrests, convictions and punishments, changes in the use and ownership of these files has changed the landscape. These modifications are not necessarily all bad – for example, computerization and standardization have made instantaneous checks and intrajurisdiction data sharing possible – but they create significant challenges. Some criminal data are part of the public domain, others are now owned by private companies. Modernization cannot eliminate the creation and replication of errors- and these mistakes have meaningful consequences.