Inaccurate Arrest Records—A Huge Problem for Americans


A recent Wall Street Journal article, “As Arrest Records Rise, Americans Find Consequences Can Last a Lifetime," disclosed that the FBI’s enormous database of arrest records contains many inaccurate entries. Attorney Stephen JohnsonGrove discusses the problem in this report.

Stephen JohnsonGrove

Stephen JohnsonGrove

The mistakes, according to JohnsonGrove, include such things a misclassification of offenses, where a misdemeanor conviction is reported as a felony, or possibly as a sex offense. “There are also a lot of name mismatches.” There are 2,000 or so companies in the business of checking criminal records, and their work is often very inaccurate.

Some of the record checking companies may be relying on the same information as the FBI, although they do not get their information from the federal agency. The FBI information comes from state law enforcement agencies. Some of them send electronic information to the FBI; others send paper reports that must be reentered as electronic data. Private record checking companies are getting information from “all over the map”

JohnsonGrove notes that the Fair Credit Reporting Act is the governing law in the area of background checking, including the reporting of criminal records. The National Consumer Law Center has a great report on broken records used by these criminal record reporting companies.

The persistence of arrest records—many not involved with any conviction of a crime—are a big problem for people in all kinds of ways. Many schools bar people from admission because of arrest records, foreclosing people from getting training that will permit them to get certain kinds of jobs later on. And people who have arrest records have a lower chance of graduating from college than those who don’t. JohnsonGrove points out that “whole neighborhoods [are] being hamstrung” by arrest records, resulting in whole generations of poverty.

JohnsonGrove suggests that the first step is to reduce the number of arrests. “We have too much conduct being criminalized.” It would also help to end the War on Drugs and treat drug abuse as a public health problem rather than a criminal one. Improvement in the record expungement process would also help by relieving people who have arrests in their background.

Stephen JohnsonGrove is the Deputy Director at the Ohio Justice & Policy Center. He is a career social justice attorney with a focus on criminal justice reform. The Legal Broadcast Network is a featured network of the Sequence Media Group.