Ya godda love them crazy Noo Yawkers. A new online service, ISpyNY.com, is offering NY residents instant online access to 'every criminal record in the state and throughout the country'. Log on, slap in the name, slap down your virtual plastic and you too can find out whether that chap you were considering for the post of marketing VP really has a history of crocodile abuse, or whether he just looks that way.
This is a serious, grown-up business. Except in New York. Because ISpyNY.com is launching on February 14th, it's offering a special Valentine's Day gift. If your Valentine turns out to be a convicted felon, the company will send you a bouquet of flowers and a box of chocolates, and even arrange to dump the hapless suitor. I do hope that's "dump" in the sense of tell to get lost, and not some strange Bronx gangster argot meaning "to coat lightly in sulphuric acid and deposit in municipal incinerator". But I guess that if anyone at IspyNY.com has need of such services, they're in the ideal position to locate the specialists. But they're going to donate free searches to local good causes, so their heart's in the right place. Rather than Sing Sing.
Criminal records serve a number of purposes. For the state, they serve as a database of people who have behaved so badly that their deeds require recording in case they do it – or other sins -- again. For employers and immigration officials, they're a crude test of trustworthiness. But for the rest of the world, criminal records have been mostly hidden. We no longer require offenders to wear a visible mark of their guilt to aid ridicule and ostracism, such practices having been found to be very effective in making sure the criminal stays thoroughly criminalised.
All that is changing, and so far without judicial acknowledgement. The idea that prison is a debt that can be paid makes less sense if the subsequent life outside is one of continual -- and potentially arbitrary -- punishment. Doubtless, there are plenty of people who approve of harsher, longer punishments for all criminals -- I'm sure there are some who will even take it upon themselves to plunder the records database to check on all their neighbours and publicly mark those who have erred. Vigilantism is always in fashion.
Others, like me, find such ideas reactionary, dangerous, self-defeating and plain wrong. But there should at least be a debate in the judiciary about these developments: increasingly, public access to criminal records will change the nature of punishment and that shouldn't just happen by accident.