530 words; 2 minutes to read
The internet has made it extraordinarily difficult if not impossible for anyone charged with a crime ever to get past that event. Whether people are arrested and not charged, or have charges dropped, or are acquitted, or plead guilty or are found guilty, their encounter with the criminal justice system is permanently encoded in the internet, often with substantial inaccuracies about their case. Measures such as pardons or expungement lose their value because internet records never disappear and are rarely corrected or even updated.
That is one of the conclusions of Sarah Esther Lageson, a sociologist at the Rutgers University-Newark School of Criminal Justice, who studies how technology affects law, criminal justice, and systems of punishment. In a 2016 report in the magazine ‘Contexts’, Lageson discusses ‘digital punishment’.
Digital crime reports are everlasting but often misleading
“Digital crime reports are unique in their scope, breadth, availability, and permanence. Websites can post arrest records, full names, and booking photos before someone is charged with or convicted of a crime, and those records remain online indefinitely.” Moreover, the information on these sites can be entirely wrong, since the sites may never update to show later events, such as charges being dismissed or someone being found not guilty. In Canada more than one third of criminal charges do not result in a conviction, but one would never know that from media or internet coverage. In a world in which what matters is the number of clicks, sensationalism and exaggeration flourish.
“Unregulated criminal history and crime reporting websites thus constitute a new form of punishment culminating in a searchable online history that its subjects often don’t know exists, until they face real-world consequences because of these records. The very existence of an online mugshot or booking report communicates powerful signals of guilt by attaching a criminal label to millions of arrestees, with a host of social and psychological consequences.”
‘This is terrible information’
These unregulated, outdated and frequently inaccurate records can have many negative effects, Lageson shows. They can affect employment, housing, dating, parenting, friendships and many other aspects of life. They essentially extend a person’s punishment far beyond any sentence imposed so that it can effectively be lifelong an “unregulated extra-legal form of punishment.”
Some sites of this kind are for profit, selling their ‘data’ to various people or organizations. Yet they can be made to look as if they are government productions even as the information on them is unsubstantiated. Others want to punish people who, they believe, are ‘getting away with’ crimes. These sites may use each other’s data without any effort to verify its accuracy. In some cases in the US public agencies sell their data to private internet providers as a way of supplementing budgets. But even government sites can be full of incorrect or outdated data. “Quite simply, this public information is terrible data.”
Another effect of these unregulated approaches is that they completely undermine the value of a pardon or expungement. Lageson tells several stories of people who had pardons yet were still unable to escape their history which continued to come up online and torment them.
While there is considerable concern for bullying or ‘revenge porn’ on the internet, there seems little interest in protecting people who have been through the criminal justice system even though they are being abused in very similar ways.