How U.S. Criminal Records Work

For most adults, once they have a criminal record it will stay with them for the rest of their life.
For most adults, once they have a criminal record it will stay with them for the rest of their life.
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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.