How Do Criminal Records Work?

How Do Criminal Records Work

Nearly one in three adults in the United States has a record in the FBI’s criminal database. Over the past three decades, a concerted effort to be tougher on crime has led to a sharp increase in the number of American’s with a criminal record. During that same period, the number of employers who run background checks has grown at an exponential rate.

The combination of tougher laws and more background checks has made it difficult for many Americans to find gainful employment. Odds are that either you have a criminal record or someone close to you does. If so, you know how difficult it can be to find a job with a criminal record hanging over your head.

Because criminal records affect so many people in the United States, it’s a good idea to know how they work, and what employers and police agencies are able to see.

What is a Criminal Record?

A criminal record is a detailed history of a person’s arrests and convictions. It contains identifying information about the person as well as any offences they have been arrested for, charged with or convicted of.

Some of the things a typical criminal record includes are:

  • Your name and date of birth
  • Any aliases
  • A physical description
  • Your current address
  • The type of crimes you have been charge with or convicted of
  • Any outstanding warrants
  • The dates of all previous arrests and convictions
  • Your fingerprints
  • Your mug shot

Not all criminal records are the same. Types or special classes of records include:

  • Adult records – Adult criminal records are your run-of-the-mill criminal record for offenders over the age of 18 or juveniles who have been convicted of crimes as adults.
  • Juvenile records – Juvenile records are for offenders under the age of 18. Offenders are processed through the juvenile courts and records are typically sealed when a person reaches age 18 if they have refrained from further criminal activity. For certain crimes and under certain conditions, children under the age of 18 can be tried as an adult. In those cases, they will have an adult record.
  • Sex Offender Registry – In addition to their regular record, people convicted of sex crimes must register as a sex offender. Each state has its own registry and a national sex offender registry that is maintained by the Department of Justice. State and national sex offender databases are available for the public to search.

Who has Access to Your Criminal Record?

Local, state and federal law enforcement agencies can access criminal records. Criminal records are also used by the courts to help determine sentences for crimes committed by the same person later. Criminal records can also be shared with law enforcement agencies in other countries, though this only happens under certain conditions.

When employers run back ground checks, they can also see your criminal records. However, you must consent to the background check. Law enforcement and the courts are the only people allowed to access your criminal record without your explicit consent.

Your criminal record is not available to the public. However, in many jurisdictions individual arrest and conviction records are. Additionally, this information is often published in local newspapers. Third-party background checking agencies can compile that information and create an unofficial record of your criminal history that is available for the public to purchase.

Can You Erase Criminal Records?

Criminal records can be a major hurdle to living a normal life. One of the first things many people want to know is if you can erase them. It depends.

Having your criminal record sealed will effectively make your criminal record disappear from the public, however the record is still available to government agencies. You may also be able to get your criminal record expunged, which would remove it completely from your record, however expungements follow different rules depending on the state you live or were convicted in. In some states, records can never be expunged. In others, only certain offences can be expunged.

Before your criminal record is expunged, you have to make your case in front of a judge. When deciding whether to expunge your record, the judge considers:

  • The crime you committed
  • If you were convicted or only arrested
  • How long it has been since your conviction or arrest
  • If you have other criminal offences on your record
  • If your sentence was completed
  • If you have been arrested or convicted of another offence since the one you wish to expunge

Consult your state’s government website to learn more about your state’s rules regarding criminal record expungement.

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