Thursday, October 19, 2006

Expunged Criminal Records That Won't Go Away

NY Times

In 41 states, people accused or convicted of crimes have the legal right to rewrite history. They can have their criminal records expunged, and in theory that means that all traces of their encounters with the justice system will disappear.

But enormous commercial databases are fast undoing the societal bargain of expungement, one that used to give people who had committed minor crimes a clean slate and a fresh start.

The data mining companies who sell personal information have a moral obligation to do more than collect information and sell it as is. They have, or should have, an obligation to correct factual errors and to correct obsolete information immediately upon proof that the data is no longer accurate. Quarterly or annual corrections are not enough.

If companies won't voluntarily keep their records up to date then they need to be legally compelled to do so with stiff fines to companies who don't promptly correct their inaccurate records or to those who don't have a system for correcting bad data.

While there are certain crimes I don't feel should be easy to erase if the person is actually guilty of that crime (especially crimes which involve serious personal risk to others) whatever system we have needs to work on a practical level.

Some database errors can make people largely unemployable. And doing that in error must not be acceptable.

If someone's record was expunged because that person was cleared of the charges, they should have the right to know that the commercial databases won't deliver a defacto reversal of the court's actions. Employers who use the results of database searches should be obligated to notify the potential employee of that result so the potential employee has the chance to prove that information wrong.

With the amount of identity theft going on, this problem has the potential to significantly impact people who have never been charged with a crime. Those who think this issue will never affect them may find out the hard way that they are wrong.

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posted by Marcella Chester @ 9:01 AM   2 comments links to this post


At October 19, 2006 6:29 PM, Blogger Gracchi said...

There was a fascinating recent case in the UK where someone with the same name was given the wrong identity and given a criminal record and disqualified from taking a teaching job. I can't remember the details but remember that it happened.

At August 28, 2008 4:12 PM, Blogger Jenisis said...

Ten years ago I was a kid living on the streets to get away from a bad family. One night I made a judgmental mistake that landed me a felony charge for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. My sentence was reduced to two years of probation and then expunged.

In the ten years since that happened I haven't so much as gotten a speeding ticket. I'm an active member in youth services and a home-school teacher. In an effort to further fund my home-schooling for disabled children I attempted to get a full-time job elsewhere. Thanks to that night ten years ago, I am unable to get a real job and my teaching career is in jeopardy.

The company that did the background check agrees that the record shows as expunged, but would not divulge that tidbit of information to the company trying to hire me. I agree that certain violent crimes need to follow people to make others aware. But the extent to which the information is being distributed is ridiculously one-sided and disturbingly malicious in some cases.

The real question here, I think, is whether or not there is a happy medium to all of this? Can criminal records be used without being abused, even and especially by the companies doing the background checks.


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