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When Is “The Right to Know” Wrong? Should Criminal Records Be Made Public Knowledge?

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The author has a wide variety of interests across a range of subjects and shares his views and tips here!

Has "the system" failed in calculating the long-term effects of publicly disclosing criminal records? Many seem to think so.

Has "the system" failed in calculating the long-term effects of publicly disclosing criminal records? Many seem to think so.

When Is Public Information Too Much Information?

Communications technologies have come a long way in making a once vast world much smaller. Today, information that was once unavailable due to location or time can now be gleaned with the mere click of a mouse, thereby providing the user with a much broader range of references. The impact of such technologies on modern civilization has been staggering, and while many have touted these advancements as being a blessing, there have also been many examples of how these breakthroughs have negatively impacted our society. Unsure about how this could happen? Well, let's take a look.

Once charged with a crime, we are presumed guilty until proven innocent, and the trail of information left behind by an arrest will be visible for many years to come . . . and will ultimately become a path for others to follow.

Once charged with a crime, we are presumed guilty until proven innocent, and the trail of information left behind by an arrest will be visible for many years to come . . . and will ultimately become a path for others to follow.

"Right" vs. Wrong?

Of the many different applications for such technologies, there is perhaps one area that has borne the brunt of their negativity more than any other: criminology. Every day, thousands of men and women are either committed to or released from prison and thus added to the ever-growing, drowning pool of criminal databases. These databases, now commonly shared over the internet by law-enforcement agencies, have provided officers and other agents with an invaluable tool for referencing such records instantly, and from virtually any location. For this reason alone, many have overlooked the fact that these same records could have had any negative ramifications at all since this information is helping to keep many, active criminals off the street. But what about the inactive, or reformed, "criminals"? The men and women who have worked diligently to turn their lives around in spite of past convictions? Must they go on paying for their convictions for the remainder of their lives? Law enforcement certainly thinks they should, as does a host of other conservative, left-wing, parties.

Essentially, what this means, is that any person charged with a crime (misdemeanor, felony, or otherwise) will have their charges displayed publicly and indefinitely, REGARDLESS if they were convicted of the crime or not. Many local, state, and federal, law-enforcement agencies already sponsor websites wherein anyone with a court-docket number and a name, can freely research anyone else's criminal history. The clincher, however, does not lie amid the fact that such knowledge is publicly available, but rather in the premise that any and all charges a person has EVER been charged with will ultimately appear upon such records--regardless if the person was convicted of the offense, resolved of all guilt, or simply had the charges dismissed. Inevitably, the final disposition of their charges will show up on their record, unless they have attained the necessary legal age for expungement of said charges (in Pennsylvania coincidentally, it is seventy years of age) or can afford the exorbitant costs involved with applying for an expungement before a judge. This latter approach, however, offers no guarantee that the judge will approve such an order, and there are generally few if any guidelines in place for judges to follow.

So, what people must then rely upon is the innate "good judgment" of a judge who once convicted them, and who is ultimately paid by the same authority that pays that same court's district attorneys AND public defenders! Talk about a catch-22! Therefore, the man or woman in decades past, who was NOT convicted of a charge or had the charge dismissed, will have this charge listed within their criminal record, as well as a detailed explanation of the events surrounding that charge, their final disposition, and any sentence served. In short, once you are "on paper", you will probably never be off of it.

To "forgive and forget"? Apparently, the government forgave their own forgotten indiscretions, in lieu of forgetting ours . . .

To "forgive and forget"? Apparently, the government forgave their own forgotten indiscretions, in lieu of forgetting ours . . .

Should All Criminal Records Be Confidential?

With advanced technology, comes the burden of using it responsibly, and for the betterment of all. The legal system, however, offers little recourse for those who have been adversely affected by its' apathetic approach to expungement, and public disclosure as a collective whole. Therefore, does it not seem logical to ask certain questions about this approach? Many seem to think so. For example, shouldn't only those convicted of their crimes have their convictions and/or charges posted? And if so, for how long?

Currently, there is no statute of limitations in place anywhere to govern the disclosure of criminal records, as all charges are made subject to the public interest. One proposal, however, that is gaining momentum involves limiting public disclosure of criminal charges to certain offenses (ie. capital offenses), thereby mandating the revision of any existing conditions governing public disclosure. This interest is also garnering support via the suggested implementation of a statute of limitations for most lesser charges. Obviously, though, there is a need for the disclosure of certain criminal records where the well-being of society comes into play (ie. sex crimes, arson, murder, crimes against children, terrorism, etc.); but again, I believe that certain sanctions should be imposed upon lesser crimes, especially those which are deemed victimless. Furthermore, this information is often used to discriminate against people rather than to promote them.

Unsure? Read on.

No Pros for the Con: "Jamie": A Real-Life Scenario

"Jamie" dabbed at her brow as she patiently sat in the cramped waiting area. Recently released from prison, she had served a forty-eight-hour sentence for a DUI which the district attorney later dropped. Anxious to return to work, Jamie knew her skills would surely land her a job, even if the competition was really stiff, and the market tough. She watched as others came and went until finally, she heard her name called. Eager and full of grim determination to get back on her feet, she followed the interviewer inside where a small cubicle awaited their arrival.

Once inside, the interviewer stated that she had heard of Jamie and reassured her that a job surely awaited. "Hi Jamie", the woman began, it's a pleasure to finally meet you". Jamie responded with a big smile and felt her tension ease. "Thank you", she said quickly and smiled again. Yet after only five minutes into the interview, Jamie found herself briskly leaving the tiny office amid a flurry of taunt humiliation and anxiety.

What happened in there? Why would such a talented individual leave an interview when she so desperately needed a job?

The answer lies in the data that the interviewer punched up regarding Jamie's recent charges. When asked about the charges, Jamie, unabashed, had not denied their existence, and honestly answered the interviewer's questions, stating that she had indeed served time for a DUI, but that the charges had been dismissed. Unfortunately, that was all the interviewer needed to hear, before closing her mind to the prospect of any employment possibilities.

"You can't out-run the long finger of the law . . . "

"You can't out-run the long finger of the law . . . "

Are You at Risk?

Still sound absurd or far-fetched? Do you have a history that could be deemed "criminal" or "deviant"? If you have not had to look for a job for a while, and feel that you have something in your jacket that might be seen as being "questionable", then you are potentially at risk. If unsure, all one must do is walk into the office of any local "head-hunter" (aka. Temp. agency, dollar-collar, whatever), and apply for indentured servitude (a job). See how well that works out for you. Ultimately, however, every person is different, and will therefore have a different experience, though I must still wish each one of you the very best; because with today's economic crunch, employers can afford to be picky and not offer "criminals" an opportunity.

Amid these recent times, a merely takes the stroke of a key to print out a person's past, and in some cases, erase their future. So, if you think you might have a warrant out for that old unpaid parking ticket; who knows, you could be next! After all, your criminal record is gold in the government coffers.

© 2012 RustyW