The History of Criminal Records in America
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History of Criminal Records in America

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By January 1930, the Uniform Crime Reporting Program was in place. The Federal Bureau of Investigation serves as the national clearinghouse for such data.

In 1967, the National Crime Information Center began to collect and share data used by federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies.

But prior to 1976, there was no public access to that wealth of information.

Court records showing convictions or acquittals have always been a matter of public record in the United States unless sealed by a judge. However, arrests records were not public.

Court decisions about access to arrest records commonly weighed the public’s right to know against privacy concerns until 1976 and the landmark decision by the Supreme Court, Paul v. Davis. The court ruled that a person’s constitutional right to privacy did not restrict publication of records of official acts, such as arrests.

Since the court had addressed the matter of privacy, Congress and state legislatures had to develop policies for dissemination of such records. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, most legislatures made criminal history records, and, in particular, arrest records, unavailable to the public.

That began to change in 1980 when Florida became the first state to adopt an open records policy, requiring all criminal history record information compiled by the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Information Systems from intrastate sources be made available to any person upon request, with payment of applicable fees. Other states and jurisdictions followed in response to pressure to make the information available.

The laws are complicated and constantly changing. Most recently there are social concerns that information about prior arrests may lead to discrimination in housing or employment. And records may continue to show up even when individuals have followed legal processes to have records expunged. Still, the right of the public to have such information is a powerful force.

Case law and legislation continue to shape public access to criminal records in the United States with each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories having different laws, in addition to those related to federal criminal information.

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