How U.S. Criminal Records Work

A man is fingerprinted at a police station.
For most adults, once they have a criminal record it will stay with them for the rest of their life.
James Lauritz/Getty Images

A criminal record might sound like something sinister; however, at least among U.S. citizens, it's becoming more and more common. What's the reason for the change? Is it merely due to population growth? Has there been a dramatic increase in law enforcement? Are the laws stricter than they were in the past? In reality, there are far too many factors to give a definitive answer. What we can say is that a criminal record tends to stay with an individual for life -- often getting in the way of certain freedoms that persons who have a clean record take for granted.

A criminal record is simply information that's kept about a person's arrests and convictions. State, local and federal authorities store and use them for many purposes. They can be used for identification and to locate possible suspects in unsolved cases. Courts can also use criminal records to determine sentences for crimes that are committed by that same person at a later time. Another use for criminal records, one that's becoming more frequent in recent years, comes in the form of background checks. Similar to the example that you just read, a background check is often used to determine if a person applying for a job has ever committed a crime.


A criminal record begins when a suspect is arrested for a crime. The person is fingerprinted and photographed. All of his or her personal information is recorded along with the information about the current arrest. If he or she is convicted of the crime, that information is also stored.

Criminal records began as handwritten or typed files that were kept at local police stations. Obviously, that type of system had its downside. Sharing of information contained within these files rarely occurred between police agencies. It was fairly easy for a person to escape his or her criminal past by simply moving to another city, state or even out of the country.

Criminal records are now stored in massive computer databases that are accessible throughout the world. As you can imagine, this ease of access makes it makes it simpler for law enforcement agencies to keep a detailed record a person's criminal activity.

So what's in a criminal record, anyway? And is there any possibility of making a criminal record go away once you do have one? Find out on the next page.


Managing a Criminal Record

It's possible to have your record expunged or sealed; however, that's an option for relatively few people.
Wayne Howard/iStockphoto

To put it in the simplest terms, a criminal record is really just some basic pieces of information that the government holds about a person. So what does a criminal record really say about someone? That depends on the particular type of crime committed and the details of that specific case. A typical criminal record file contains the following basic information:

  • Name
  • Date of birth
  • Known aliases (other names used by that person)
  • Physical description
  • Current address
  • Type of crime
  • Outstanding arrest warrants
  • Dates of arrests or convictions
  • Fingerprint data
  • Mug shot (photo taken at the time of the arrest)

Criminal records are government documents and are managed by the law enforcement or court that created them. So, for example, if you are convicted in a state court, only the state court is in control of documenting the information about your arrest.


Criminal records hold information only about crimes or arrests for crimes and do not include traffic convictions. So, if you're worried about that time you were ticketed for going 35 in a 25 mph zone, don't sweat it. If you paid the ticket, you don't have a criminal record. Not for that incident, anyway.

Here's the good news: it's possible to make your criminal record disappear. Sound too good to be true? In some circumstances, you can ask to have your record expunged. This means that it can be erased or removed. When a record is expunged, it becomes inactive, but the information continues to be accessible to law enforcement or government officials. If your record has been expunged, you can legally say that you have no criminal record. In some states, this is also referred to as sealing your record, although it's essentially the same process.

The rules about expungement are different in each state. However, adult criminal records are never automatically expunged or sealed. In some states, expungement is not even an option. An expungement is most likely to be considered if the record in question contains a minor first offense. In order to get a record expunged, you must follow the procedure set up by your state laws to request that it goes through a court process. The judge deciding the case will consider the following:

  • The type of crime committed
  • Whether you were convicted or just arrested
  • How much time has passed since the arrest or conviction
  • The rest of your record
  • Whether you have successfully completed your sentence
  • Whether you have been arrested or convicted again since this occurrence

In the next section, read about special forms of criminal records, including juvenile and sex offender records.


Special Forms of Criminal Records

Juvenile criminal records are typically sealed once the person turns 18. The intent is to give juveniles with a criminal record a fresh start as they enter adulthood.
Lou Jones/Getty Images

In the United States, juvenile criminal records are handled in a different manner than adult criminal records. In most states, anyone under the age of 18 is considered a juvenile. When a child commits a crime, it's usually handled by a special juvenile court, sometimes called a young offenders court. When a child is arrested or convicted, the criminal record that is created is treated very differently than that of an adult. The general consensus is that children should not have their juvenile record follow them for their entire lives due to mistakes that were made while they were young. Because of this, juvenile records are usually sealed once the person reaches age 18, as long as he or she has not committed another crime. Once sealed, the record remains in existence but is not available to anyone but law enforcement or the courts. This allows the young person to have a fresh start as an adult. However, if another crime has been committed, the record can be kept open.

Sometimes, a juvenile is tried as an adult. This usually happens when the crime committed is very serious, such as murder or rape. When a juvenile is tried as an adult, he or she is sent to a regular adult court. The court decides the case, and if there's a conviction, it's entered on the person's record as an adult offense. For this type of record to be sealed, the person must go through the regular state process just as an adult would.


If a juvenile is convicted of a sex offense, just like an adult offender, he or she must register as a sex offender. A sex offense is a crime of a sexual nature (such as rape, sexual assault, inappropriate touching and so on) in which the victim can be a minor or an adult. Juvenile and adult sex offenders are treated differently than people who commit other crimes. A sex offense goes on a criminal record, and in addition to this, he or she must register with the state sex offender registry. The information about the crime is sent to the registry, and the convicted person must inform the registry of any changes in address after he or she is released from prison.

Each state maintains a sex offender registry, and there is also a national public criminal records database -- The Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Registry. These databases are accessible to anyone and can be searched by entering a zip code, city, state, street or even the offender's name. Sex offenders have one of the highest recidivism (re-offense) rates. These registries were created so that sex offenders could be tracked and so parents can learn of registered offenders living in their neighborhood.

Criminal records are stored in a variety of databases. On the next page, find out how (and where) some of these records are stored.


Criminal Record Storage

Criminal records are stored in massive databases which can provide police agencies located around the world access to important information when they need it.
Ferenc Cegledi/iStockphoto

As you might guess, the old system of record keeping -- handwritten or typed files -- has been replaced. Criminal records are now mainly stored on computer databases. The first level of database storage is at state and local levels. Every police agency that makes an arrest retains a record of it, just as every court that convicts someone of a crime retains a record. All court convictions are public record and can be searched and viewed by anyone.

The next level of database storage is statewide repositories. Each state maintains information about arrests and convictions within its borders. However, each state has different regulations about which crimes must be reported to the repository. In some states, it's not mandatory that this information is reported, so it's done on a voluntary basis.


State repositories report their information to The National Crime Information Center, which manages a database called the Interstate Identification Index, or III. It mainly includes crimes such as felonies (murder, rape and grand larceny) as well as serious misdemeanors (robbery, assault, etc). Use of this database is not permitted for employment checks by private citizens and is strictly for the use of justice agencies throughout the United States. A person is only entered into this database when the FBI obtains fingerprint data.

Although criminal records do not include traffic offenses, there is a separate national database for serious traffic offenses. The National Driver Register is managed by the Department of Transportation and includes information about convictions involving suspended licenses, DUIs (driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol), failure to help someone at the scene of an accident, fatal accidents, or perjury (lying) about the operation of a motor vehicle. These records are accessible by employers about potential employees who will be driving as part of their job responsibility.

Interested to know if you or someone else can access your criminal record? Read the next page to find out.


Criminal Record Access

A young man behind bars.
Your privacy rights are much more limited once you have a criminal record.
Andrejs Zemdega/iStockphoto

If you have a criminal record and would like to be able to see what it says about you, you're entitled to a copy of it under the Freedom of Information Act. Each state has its own process for this. Start with the court where you were convicted, or contact the state probation office, the public defender's office in your county or the federal defender's office if you were convicted in a federal court.

A person has limited privacy rights in his or her criminal record. Criminal records are:


  • Always accessible to law enforcement and justice agencies
  • Accessible to potential employers (with consent)
  • Not available to the general public

One important point to make here is that you cannot authorize someone other than a potential employer to obtain your criminal record -- even with your permission. Another point is that you can be discriminated against because of your record. A person with a criminal record is not considered to be in what is called a protected class -- a group of people that cannot be discriminated against because of their membership in the class. You can be refused a job, excluded from public housing and in general treated differently because of a criminal record. The only exception to this is that a person who has a felony for drug use may not be discriminated against because of that conviction.

A potential employer can ask you about your criminal record if you're applying for a job in which a record presents a concern. The employer can access your criminal record (with permission) through a credit agency or private firm. You can deny permission for a record check, but doing so is a red flag to the employer. In general, if you're asked about having a record, it's best to offer the information yourself and try to give an explanation when possible.

If you're applying for a job and your record presents a problem, it's possible to obtain fidelity bonding. This is essentially an insurance policy that protects the employer against any loss you might cause. You can purchase this type of bond yourself, or obtain it through a community rehabilitation program or the Federal Bonding Program.

Criminal records must be checked when a person applies to buy a firearm. The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) is the database used to screen potential firearm buyers. A person who has been indicted for a crime with a penalty of more than one year in prison is ineligible to purchase a gun.

Criminal records are shared across state borders as well as international borders. Read the next page to find out how it's done.


Criminal Record Sharing

An INTERPOL officer is at work on May 5, 2008 at the Lyon-based agency, eastern France, on images of a man who is thought to be involved in child abuse.

Criminal records can cross state lines. State and local law enforcement and justice agencies report criminal records to state repositories. The state repositories then share that information with the federal databases on a voluntary basis. The information is stored in searchable computer databases. Law enforcement in each state can then conduct a criminal record search within its own state repository, as well as within any of the federal databases. Often, the searches are conducted using fingerprint data and names.

Admittedly, the U.S. has a confusing system for storing and managing criminal records. Many people believe that there should be one main database that contains all information about all crimes committed in the United States. However, not all crimes are reported to state repositories, and not all state repository information is sent to the federal database.


Criminal records can also cross borders. As the world becomes a more global society, the exchange of criminal records between countries will become extremely important. Currently, each country can keep (or not keep) criminal records using any method it chooses. The laws vary greatly about what kinds of crimes exist in each country, how records are kept and what information is contained in those records. International criminal records (in participating countries) are accessible by INTERPOL, an international cooperative law enforcement agency. These records are not accessible to the public.

If you have a criminal record, it's unlikely it will prevent you from traveling internationally from the United States to other countries. However, each country has the right to turn away anyone who is attempting to enter its borders for any reason. Officials do not routinely run an international criminal record check on foreign visitors, but they have the right to do so. You don't need to provide proof that you have no record in order to travel; however, should you apply to live or work in a foreign country, you could be denied permission due to a criminal record. Likewise, a person seeking to enter the Unites States can be turned away because of a criminal record. If you have a criminal record and wish to enter the United States, the Department of Homeland Security recommends that you apply for a visa before you travel to prevent any problems at the border.

If you'd like to learn more about criminal records, or search some of the databases that were mentioned within this article, then follow the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • Federal Bureau of Investigation. "Criminal Justice Information Services."
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation. "FBI Criminal History Checks for Employment and Licensing."
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation. "FBI Identification Record Request."
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation. "Freedom of Information Privacy Act."
  • Findlaw for the Public. "Expungement (Erasing an Arrest or Conviction)."
  • Findlaw for the Public. "Juvenile Court Procedure." procedure.html
  • Gonnerman, Jennifer. "Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett." Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2004.
  • National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) - U.S. Department of Transportation. "National Driver Register." b1ad09d07b2e610cba046a0/
  • National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
  • Petersilia, Joan. "When Prisoners Come Home: Parole and Prisoner Reentry." Oxford University Press. 2003.
  • Pike, John. National Crime Information Center (NCIC). 1/18/2006.
  • The FBI National Crime Information Center (NCIC). "NCIC Missing Person and Unidentified Person Statistics for 2005."
  • U.S. Department of Justice - Bureau of Justice Statistics. "Prevalence of Imprisonment in the U.S. Population, 1974-2001." August 2003.
  • U.S. Department of Justice. "The Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Registry."
  • U.S. Department of Labor. "The Federal Bonding Program."
  • U.S. Department of State - Bureau of Consular Affairs. "Criminal Record Checks."
  • Wisconsin Department of Justice. "Interstate Identification Index." /interstateidentificationindex.htm