Will free criminal searches upset society's fine balance?
Dallas Morning News, Andrew Smith, August 3, 2008
Brad Stone has an interesting article in today's NY Times about the traditional
balance between the public's right to know about a person's past crimes and that
person's right to get on with his life.
Criminal records have always been "public" documents but they've always been so
hard to find and obtain that most ex-cons could effectively escape their pasts.
More recently, the Internet has made it a lot easier to run a criminal background
check, but because all the sites that did it charged money, only people with a real
interest in knowing ever bothered.
Now a site called CriminalSearches.com lets you look up anyone's criminal record
for free and Stone thinks it will make it nearly impossible for people to ever live
down mistakes and move on with their lives.
I don't doubt that easy searches will make it harder for some reformed cons, but I'm
not sure that's as bad a thing as Stone seems to assume...
For one thing, the very realistic prospect of a single crime haunting you for all your
life might actually convince some people not to commit as many crimes. (No, I'm not
suggesting crime will plummet as a result of this. I'm just saying that it may make
some difference on borderline cases.)
Second, it's also going to save a lot of people from entangling themselves with shady
people. If criminal searches were really easy, then we'd have a lot fewer cases of,
say, habitual drug users getting jobs driving school buses.
Will some people overreact? Certainly. But the good will probably outweigh the bad.
Like it or not, a criminal record tells you something about a person. It's not all of
the picture, but it's certainly a part of the picture.
My only real worry is that people will be identified incorrectly (because they share
names with criminals) or that the records themselves will be incorrect or at least
Stone mentions that he used the site to check on some colleagues and found one who
had a "criminal offense."
Sounds ominous but it turned out to be a speeding ticket.
I'm not saying that a speeding ticket shouldn't show up on your record. It should.
It will help me figure out if I want to let my kid get in your car or if I want to hire
you as a driver.
No, the problem here isn't too much information, it's too little. Broad, generic terms
set imaginations to work, and that really isn't fair.