In today’s system of widespread and open access to criminal history records – through commercial vendors and government repositories – it is almost impossible for an individual to overcome a criminal history. Extending far beyond any judicially imposed punishment, many additional consequences flow “collaterally” from a person’s criminal history, creating lifelong barriers to housing, employment, and other critical resources. These negative consequences can persist regardless of the offense’s severity or whether an arrest is ever prosecuted. A review of Texas’ largest urban counties illustrates the wide reach of collateral consequences and the harm inflicted.
“Smart on Crime” reentry reforms have tended to focus on problems arising after criminal records are already publicly available. This is too late.
More than 65 million adults nationwide have a criminal history; the numbers in Texas are equally alarming, with an estimated 4.7 million adults possessing a criminal record. In Texas alone, law enforcement makes more than 1 million new arrests annually.
With the rise of the Internet and the emergence of electronic databases, more than 40 million criminal background checks are performed annually for non-criminal justice purposes. But despite the technological advances that make criminal records so easy and cheap to access, little oversight exists to ensure that the information being reported is accurate and legally compliant. Equally problematic is that efforts to minimize collateral consequences by limiting access to the criminal records are undermined by the absence of uniform statewide release procedures.
Widespread access to criminal records has serious long-term societal implications: The risk of recidivism and danger to public safety are the most common concerns voiced by those advocating for increased access to criminal records, but such fears are overstated. Few, if any, contend that criminal history information is never a relevant factor to be considered. Problems arise, however, when policies and practices allow searches to include any past criminal involvement or law enforcement contact, regardless of offense, circumstance, and time passed. Restricting all opportunity for those living with a criminal record does not enhance public safety.