The Purgatory of Digital Punishment

It doesn’t matter whether they’re accurate—criminal records are all over the internet, where anyone can find them. And everyone does.

On a frozen December day in Minneapolis, William walked into a free legal aid seminar, to try to fix his criminal record. Lumbering toward a lawyer, his arms full of paperwork, William tried to explain his situation quickly. “I want to show you my record here that I got from my probation officer. Here.” Frustrated, William waved papers in the air.

After an employer and a landlord both denied his applications following private background checks, William started to suspect something was wrong with his criminal record. When he finally got a copy, the data made no sense. One arrest was dated to 1901. Another arrest was linked to an active warrant.

“Now, here’s a thing about it. I got one [conviction] in ’82; that was the last time I was in jail.” William paused to scan the document. “And that was that charge here. All of this,” he said, pointing to the paper, “is not me.” It seemed as if someone with a similar name—and a far more extensive criminal history—had been matched to William’s identity in a state police or court record database. He quickly realized that not only was his record incorrect, but it had spread across databases used by background check companies—and was posted on the internet. It was as if someone had stolen his identity—but instead of using his identity to buy something, they used it to slip stolen goods into his pocket.

The lawyers warned William of the Kafkaesque bureaucracy he would face. He had to fix the mismatched identity with the state police, ask the court to fix the 1901 data error, and close the mistaken (but open) warrant. Because he could not afford a lawyer, William had to rely on free legal aid or deal directly with the courts and state bureaus himself. This wasn’t what he wanted to hear. He had been trying for months to get help. The first time he’d tried to meet with a volunteer attorney, he was given an incorrect address and walked around downtown Minneapolis for hours trying to find the office. All of this confusion and frustration led him to the seminar today. He was about ready to give up.

“It’s too much. It’s too frustrating,” William said. “You know, you ain’t done nothing in 30-something years and then all of a sudden you want to get an apartment and you can’t. You’re just stuck the way you are at. That’s just terrible. It’s a bad feeling. It’s like I’ve been on a standstill.”

The problems William faced are rapidly multiplying across the country, in various forms. Incorrect or misleading records from years past pop up on Google searches. Criminal convictions that accurately appear on one background check don’t appear on another. Sealed, expunged, and juvenile records that are legally hidden from public view continue to live on across databases and websites.

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