Balancing post-conviction data and privacy

(Photo credit: drpavloff/Flickr)

We’ve examined some of the concerning implications of publishing pre-conviction datasets online, but what about post-conviction data? Many states publish inmate databases online that contain personally identifiable information. Interestingly, though, standards for sharing these resources with the public don’t exist, causing large discrepancies in how governments approach them.

Generally, inmate and parolee databases can be found by searching a state’s department of corrections website. In a few isolated instances — such as Texas, Nebraska and Florida — inmate databases can be downloaded in bulk. More commonly, departments of correction will require a search by name, by county, offense or other broad category. Ohio publishes information on every offender currently under supervision in any given county. Utah requires either an offender number or complete first and last name to display results.

Bulk inmate databases

Another factor that keeps offenders in the public record permanently is bulk data releases of inmate personal information online. Given the somewhat understated appearance of rows and rows of names, dates of birth and other miscellaneous personal data in these listings, it’s not surprising that they are sometimes tucked away in unexpected corners online.

Our research uncovered three departments of corrections that allow for the bulk download of regularly updated inmate records. The first, accessible through the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Information and Services page and cryptically titled “High Value Datasets,” includes an Excel file providing personally identifiable information for every inmate in the system. According to the Executive Services division of the department, that information is updated three times a year and was made public because the high numbers of individual public records requests for inmate data had overwhelmed employees. The Information Technology division of the department shared with us that the page receives a paltry average of 65 monthly hits.

Interestingly, Texas, along with a few other states, actually restricts information that can be obtained from an arrest record. The Texas Court of Appeals ruled against The Houston Chronicle’s demand for this information, citing “the potential for massive and unjustified damage to the individual” if “Personal History and Arrest Record[s] [were] open to inspection by the press and public.”

Some in Texas agree that the inmate information available online crosses privacy boundaries. The Texas Criminal Justice Commission, a group that works closely with the legislature on defining the state’s reform agenda, questions the value of the bulk inmate data records. As the organization’s Executive Director Leah Pinney told Sunlight, “While having access to data in general is useful … such personally detailed information is not necessary, nor helpful to publish.” Released inmates trying to re-enter society face an even higher bar in a digital era than they did before. Third-party background checking companies have long used public records requests for Record of Arrest and Prosecutions (RAP) sheets to develop private criminal records repositories.

Others disagree, arguing that transparency with regard to inmate records serves a valuable purpose. “In the current climate of criminal justice reform, there’s plenty of reasons to want access to this information,” Adam Marshall, a legal fellow at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told Sunlight. According to Marshall, access to granular, individual-level data helps reporters verify for the public that aggregate numbers being produced by state agencies are valid. Such data also allows reporters to examine broader questions like correctional system budgeting priorities by examining specific data with regard to age or gender. “In the United States, there just isn’t a right to be forgotten,” he concluded.

Bulk data accessibility on inmates isn’t limited to Texas. A similar database can be found on Nebraska’s Department of Correctional Services site, which offers both Excel file downloads for active offenders as well as data on individual incarcerations and releases dating back to 1935. Finally, Florida’s Department of Corrections site provides a sophisticated Microsoft Access database for inmates currently in the system as well as every individual released since 1997, which includes the address of every offender and his or her incarceration history, known aliases and, interestingly enough, tattoos.

Rights to data and beyond

States may not treat all inmates equally, however, particularly when inmates served in law enforcement or public office. The Boston Globe has filed a lawsuit against a host of criminal justice agencies in Massachusetts for using the state’s Criminal Offender Record Information Act — which excludes “intelligence information” from “criminal record information” — to block reporters’ access to police officers’ criminal history.  

In addition, victims have a unique legal right to updates about offender status, particularly with regard to sexual offenders. Search tools like Hawaii’s Sex Offender and Other Covered Offender Search allow users to see all such offenders within a definable radius from any address. In most states, Megan’s Law requires convicted sex offenders to register after they have been released and remain searchable for long periods of time after their conviction, even permanently in some instances. Resources like VINELink (Victim Information Notification Everyday) — a for-profit venture run by the private company Appriss — automate offender custody status alerts from state agencies.

The United States Supreme Court has found that inmates essentially forfeit their right to privacy while in prison. But do they forfeit their right to privacy forever online? The information of state prison inmates can remain actively searchable online for much longer than pre-conviction data like arrest records (which are frequently removed within a window of 1-3 months). In an era of online, downloadable criminal records, how can citizens effectively expunge those records and establish a clean slate? How are juveniles treated in a system where public records left online in the short term can have long-term effects? We’ll dig into these questions in the third and final section tomorrow, where we examine different types of criminal history and their roles in the criminal justice system.