Databases endangering practice of expunging criminal records

How can officials promise removal of criminal records when they are in the hands of private companies?

The New York Times explores a little-reported consequence on our database-driven society. Government officials soon may now longer be able to expunge criminal records, long a quid pro quo for guilty pleas and community service.

Most states seal at least some records of juvenile offenses. Many states also allow adults arrested for or convicted of minor crimes like possessing marijuana, shoplifting or disorderly conduct to ask a judge, sometimes after a certain amount of time has passed without further trouble, to expunge their records. If the judge agrees, the records are destroyed or sealed.

But real expungement is becoming significantly harder to accomplish in the electronic age. Records once held only in paper form by law enforcement agencies, courts and corrections departments are now routinely digitized and sold in bulk to the private sector. Some commercial databases now contain more than 100 million criminal records. They are updated only fitfully, and expunged records now often turn up in criminal background checks ordered by employers and landlords.

There's a lot of pressure for officials to sell criminal records to database companies and they say they're diligent about updating expungements. Should the private sector be trusted?

Critics say that even the biggest vendors do not always update their records promptly and thoroughly and that many smaller ones use outdated, incomplete and sometimes inaccurate data.

Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, a lawyer in Miami, tells her clients that expungement is a waste of time. “To tell someone their record is gone is essentially to lie to them,” Ms. Rodriguez-Taseff said. “In an electronic age, people should understand that once they have been convicted or arrested that will never go away.”

Like so many issues with privacy implications, the situation arises from the increased security checks after 9-11.

“Something like 80 percent of large- or medium-sized employers now do background checks,” said Debbie A. Mukamal, the director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “Employers need to know about job-related convictions to make a nuanced, responsible decision so that they can protect themselves and the public and give people a fair shot at employment.”

But the current system, Ms. Mukamal added, is not working. “It’s unfettered,” she said. “It’s not regulated. There’s misinformation.”

The industry leaders say the situation is well in hand.

ChoicePoint, one of the larger database companies, performed nine million background checks last year, said Matt Furman, a spokesman. The company’s error rate is very small, Mr. Furman said. “One out of every thousand background checks has led to a consumer contact” disputing or complaining about the information provided, he said, “and one of a thousand contacts results in a change.”

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