America has long held the position as the world's foremost imprisoner of its own citizens. Around 2 million people are incarcerated in America, giving us nearly one-fourth of the world's total prison population. Spending any length of time in prison is a good way to destroy your future. But even if you never spend a day inside -- or even end up facing charges -- there's a good chance you'll still be facing a bleak future should you ever have the misfortune to be booked.
Over the past 20 years, authorities have made more than a quarter of a billion arrests, the Federal Bureau of Investigation estimates. As a result, the FBI currently has 77.7 million individuals on file in its master criminal database—or nearly one out of every three American adults.
Between 10,000 and 12,000 new names are added each day.
This master database is accessed by thousands of employers running pre-hire background checks, as well as by banks and landlords. One moment of stupidity, even if it never results in time served, could derail someone's life. Arrests are damaging, even if it's ultimately determined that no criminal activity occurred. How many thousands of people are being turned down for loans or rejected by landlords simply because a cop made up BS charges to arrest a photographer
or deployed handcuffs instead of responsible crowd control?
When Precious Daniels learned that the Census Bureau was looking for temporary workers, she thought she would make an ideal candidate. The lifelong Detroit resident and veteran health-care worker knew the people in the community. She had studied psychology at a local college.
Days after she applied for the job in 2010, she received a letter indicating a routine background check had turned up a red flag.
In November of 2009, Ms. Daniels had participated in a protest against Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan as the health-care law was being debated. Arrested with others for disorderly conduct, she was released on $50 bail and the misdemeanor charge was subsequently dropped. Ms. Daniels didn't anticipate any further problems.
But her job application brought the matter back to life. For the application to proceed, the Census bureau informed her she would need to submit fingerprints and gave her 30 days to obtain court documents proving her case had been resolved without a conviction...
She didn't get the job.
This is one case out of thousands. Exacerbating law enforcement's enthusiasm for making meaningless arrests is the fact that no one involved in maintaining the criminal database is interested in making sure it only contains convicted criminals. Documentation of arrests aren't removed when charges are dismissed and information on cleared individuals is seldom forwarded to the FBI by local PDs.
And it's not as though false arrests are the exception to the rule. According to research done by the University of South Carolina, it's more of a coin toss -- 47% of respondents who were arrested were never convicted and 25% were never even charged.
This callous disregard for the falsely arrested places the burden on those harmed by law enforcement's wrongful actions to clear their names, which in our criminal justice system is an entirely uphill battle.
In October 2012, Jose Gabriel Hernandez was finishing up dinner at home when officers came to arrest him for sexually assaulting two young girls.
Turns out, it was a case of mistaken identity. In court documents, the prosecutor's office acknowledged that the "wrong Jose Hernandez" had been arrested and the charges were dropped.
Once the case was dismissed, Mr. Hernandez assumed authorities would set the record straight. Instead, he learned that the burden was on him to clear his record and that he would need a lawyer to seek a formal expungement.
"Needless to say, that hasn't happened yet," says Mr. Hernandez, who works as a contractor. Mr. Hernandez was held in the Bexar County jail on $150,000 bond. He didn't have the cash, so his wife borrowed money to pay a bail bondsman the nonrefundable sum of $22,500, or the 15% fee, he needed to put up. They are still repaying the loans.
Notably, there are no corresponding negative results for police who arrest the wrong person. It's always an "honest mistake" even when nearly half of their arrests never result in convictions. It's the citizens who need to spend their time and money (which, given the economic background of those most likely to be arrested, are generally commodities in short supply) trying to convince potential employers, landlords and banks that they're not actually criminals.
The difference a false arrest can make in one person's life is devastating. According to the Wall Street Journal, someone with an arrest on their record is only half as likely to own a house and twice as likely to be below the poverty line by age 25.
Ballooning law enforcement budgets have combined with bad ideas like zero tolerance policies and "broken windows" policing to turn arrests into a near inevitability, especially for citizens who aren't white… or document police activity… or engage in First Amendment-protected speech. There's no path guaranteed to keep your record from being blighted by a trumped-up charge or an arrest that leads nowhere. To those who control your future -- employers, landlords, banks, college admission offices -- it all looks the same when the background report comes in. The FBI is barely interested in ensuring its criminal database only houses data on criminals and local law enforcement agencies seem to be totally disinterested in clearing those wrongfully charged. Once again, the public is expected to do the legwork if it ever hopes to climb higher than the lowest rung in our nation -- guilty even if