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Q&A: Researchers Sarah Lageson, Elizabeth Webster and Juan Sandoval

Disclosing Criminal Records on the Internet Creates ‘Digital Punishment’

By Mukund Rathi

First of three parts.

The digitization and release of public criminal records on the internet is “increasingly disconnected from a criminal justice purpose of public notification or agency watchdogging.”

That’s according to a study by Sarah Lageson, assistant professor at the Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice; Elizabeth Webster, assistant professor at Loyola University Chicago, and Juan Sandoval, doctoral student at the University of California Irvine. 

Lageson holds a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Minnesota. Webster’s doctorate is from the Rutgers School of Criminal Justice — and Sandoval previously was a probation and parole officer in New Mexico.

The study, released in January, examined 200 public governmental websites of law enforcement, criminal courts, corrections and other repositories in all 50 states. It found a “remarkable quantity” of personally identifiable information (PII) on accused and convicted people.

For example, all states disclose data on currently incarcerated people and nearly half of law-enforcement agencies disclose mugshots. 

In the first of three interviews, the authors told Digital Privacy News that these disclosure practices produced a new form of “digital punishment.”

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Why did you conduct this study?

Lageson: There is criminal-record data all over the internet, including from private and unregulated sources and the official background-checking industry.

“This study underscores the involvement of private citizens in perpetuating the stigma and punishment.”

Elizabeth Webster, Loyola University Chicago.

But no one has asked where all the data comes from, especially when scraped or collected in bulk. We looked at the data-disclosure practices of each state.

How?

Lageson: We looked at four sources per state: the largest county’s police department, the state’s centralized court website (or for the largest county), the Department of Corrections website — and the state rap-sheet repository, which is normally run by state police.

We coded the PII on each website. We looked at administrative data for each state’s criminal legal system to get a sense of how many records are released.

What were the results?

Webster: This study underscores the involvement of private citizens in perpetuating the stigma and punishment — that even after people are released, or never convicted in the first place.

It’s important for the public to know about this because individual citizens, potential employers, landlords, neighbors and even romantic partners use this data online — and it perpetuates the “reverse sunshine effect” we discuss in the study.

This reverses the intended effect of transparency laws, where it’s not really so much about the government and more about individuals and denying their privacy rights.

Did the results surprise you?

Lageson: We were surprised by the variation in dissemination of PII between states and counties.

The stigma of your arrest or charges may then differ based on where it happened — and you may not know in advance how your personal information is going to be shared.

Which states are releasing the most information?

Lageson: Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Minnesota. We didn’t find meaningful patterns based on state punitiveness, incarceration rate, crime rate and politics. The study focuses more on the magnitude effect at a national level.

“The government’s version may be sealed once the disposition is in a person’s favor — but once it’s on the internet, it never goes away.”

Sarah Lageson, Rutgers University.

The data, though local, are released on the internet. The websites that scrape and repackage and profit from these data tend to pull from many jurisdictions and have national coverage as well.

What types of records are states releasing?

Lageson: Ninety-two percent of states release some pre-conviction record, whether that’s an arrest or a criminal charge that didn’t lead to conviction.

This is really troubling for “clean-slate” acts and other reforms around the sealing of pre-conviction records. The government’s version may be sealed once the disposition is in a person’s favor — but once it’s on the internet, it never goes away.

Which agencies are disclosing these records?

Sandoval: Within pre-conviction records, there’s arrest data but also court data. Even within that, there’s a lot of variation as to what you can access.

For law enforcement data, you’re probably going to get mostly charge information, listing a ton of personal identifiers of that individual.

But within court data, you’re going to see the information within various legal processes that people may not understand.

What variations did you find?

Webster: We saw how you could just type in a random name and get all this information.

It does show that the amount of available PII is a lot more than people would expect, in terms of the number of sites that provide individuals’ home addresses, dates of birth — and Montana discloses their tattoos and whether they’re right- or left-handed.

“Within court data, you’re going to see the information within various legal processes that people may not understand.”

Juan Sandoval, University of California Irvine.

Not every state discloses that amount of information — but if you are from one of those states, then that makes you that much more vulnerable to different types of internet predation.

It’s justice by geography.

Next Monday: Data brokers, Google and the “reverse sunshine effect.”

Mukund Rathi is a California writer.

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