Arrested Development: How Criminal Justice Records Can Sidetrack Lives

In New Jersey and across America, becoming entangled in the criminal justice system has become far too common. With five percent of the world's population, the U.S. accounts for 25 percent of the world's prisoners. Many of these prisoners are nonviolent offenders who were incarcerated due to drug charges.

To be sure, being entangled in the justice system does not necessarily mean going to prison. It could also mean being placed on probation or another form of supervised release. It could even mean simply being arrested - and then having that old arrest record make it difficult to get housing, employment or consumer credit.

New Jersey criminal defense attorneys and others who pay close attention to the criminal justice system have long known that the number of people affected by previous brushes with the law is very high. Now a new research study has quantified just how prevalent such contacts with the law are in our society.

Nearly One in Three People Arrested

Researchers analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. This survey followed a nationally representative sample of 7,335 participants, gathering data yearly starting at age 12 to 16.

The study based on this survey found that, by age 23, 30.2 percent of the participants had been arrested for a crime. That is nearly one in every three people. This is much higher than the researchers expected. A previous longitudinal analysis in 1965 had found a rate of 22 percent.

But since 1965, the American criminal justice system has become significantly more punitive. Nationally, over two million people are in jail or prison, which is triple the number in 1980. Another five million are on probation, parole, or other forms of community supervision. Much of this increase is due to the legacy of the so-called "war on drugs" and the stepped-up frequency of drug charges.

The numbers get even higher when those who were arrested but not convicted are added in. In a pre-Internet world, an arrest that did not lead to charges would not necessarily haunt someone's efforts to get a job or rent an apartment.

Since computer-assisted background checks are now widely used, however, even an erroneous arrest can become a black mark on someone's record. In a tough economy, one black mark on a job application is all it can take to keep someone unemployed and out of society's mainstream.

This problem has been building for years, along with the prison population. In 2006, the Educational Testing Service, based in Princeton, New Jersey, published a troubling report about it entitled " Locked Up and Locked Out." The report documents how involvement in the criminal justice system makes educational achievement problematic and therefore throws people's lives off-track - sometimes irrevocably.

Role of Expungement or Record-Sealing

The consequences of a criminal history record are clear. Such records are threats to getting apartments, desirable work, and a place in the American mainstream. Even an arrest that did not lead to charges, or led to charges that were dismissed, can have these consequences if the record comes up in a criminal background check.

For these reasons, it makes sense to talk to a criminal defense lawyer about what can be done. The possibilities could include expungement of the record, which is a court process for having something removed from a criminal justice record. Another possibility is to seek to have the record sealed. Even if a record cannot be fully sealed from law enforcement, it may be possible to seal the record from access by the general public - including prospective employers.