A brief overview of online inmate lookups.
Inmate searches are the most popular and most frequently visited pages of all government agency websites. Most searches are peformed
by the family members of incarcerated individuals, although many queries come from employers and investigative agencies concerned with connecting children with their parents. Since the early 2000's, the Illinois Department of Corrections, one of the largest departments of corrections in the United States and hosting quite possibly the world's largest inmate search database, has maintained records on nearly 100,000 inmates and parolees, including links to most wanted fugitives and sex offenders.
Most states have already made searchable listings for ex-convicts available publicly on the internet. In the interests of public
safety most states have long maintained public records of current and past prison inmates offline and online since at
least the late 1990s. State inmate searches, such as the Kentucky Offender Lookup, can average over three million hits per month.
New York State's department of criminal justice services has offered inmate lookup services on former state offenders since the 1970s, and today offers a current inmate locator tool that includes case information as well as a sex offender registry. For a full list of inmate search tools provided by state departments of corrections, refer to the list on the right.
Local courts also already provide public information on case-files such as traffic tickets and child custodies, and
the FBI maintains sex offender databases.
Inmate Searches & Privacy
Detailed records of all inmates in Wyoming prisons were established in 2001, whereby the public can access a prisoner's name, picture, list of crimes, sentence, projected parole and release dates, and where they are currently being housed. Wyoming had among the most restrictive laws against publishing inmate records and making inmate searches available at the time, and caused a moderate degree of controversy (Associated Press Newswires, 2001, "Inmate Disclosure Law goes into effect").
But publishing the names and personal details of ex-offenders in an online searchable database carries with it certain ethical and practical risks. One argument against online records is that the publication of personal information compromises the rehabilitation of the offender once he or she is out on parole. While public citizens do have a right to protect themselves and their families from known harm, the loss of individual rights over one's privacy can aggravate some of the very same goals the prison tries to achieve when
it incapacitates and reforms offenders in the interests of public safety.
One positive impact that such online inmate search tools provide is an indirect kind of deterrent to crime. Criminologist
John Braithewaite has argued for many years that modern day "shaming rituals" still exist, and indeed often
serve very functional purposes for society, as a whole. Many argue that online databases can serve particularly well as
shaming tools by reinforcing the deterrent effect of public outrage and public exhibition of one's crimes.
However, some states are more reluctant than others to share personal information on inmates to the public. South Dakota,
for instance, has only until very recently maintained the secrecy of its inmate records from public searches, excluding sex offenders and prison escapees. The South Dakota Department of Corrections' spokesperson, Michael Winder, said in a recent Associated Press article as saying that he "hopes to" in the future include a public inmate search service that includes photographs and other personal information of offenders and parolees. The original legislation was rejected in 2001 on grounds that hackers could corrupt the information on the
website and expose the personal details of innocent people and defame them using "fictitious" criminal records.
"Who is in Jail?"
The search term "Who is in Jail?" was searched over 16 million times on Google worldwide last month, with over 9 million of those searches coming from within the United States. Privacy and ethics issues aside, the public demand for offender information is staggering and likely to continue to be strong for many years. Already the public has online access to inmate lookup and inmate
search services for most states in the U.S. And while data on personal information used to be limited to fields such as full
name and offender number (or booking number in the case of county jail detainees), search services today are much broader and more open-ended, including variables such as most recent conviction, past conviction, sentence length, the name of the institution,
institution number/identifier, inmate status, admission and release decision dates, parole date, discharge date, tentative
discharge date, and sometimes the complete history of where the inmate was incarcerated throughout his or her prison life.
Often, vital characteristics are also listed, including distinguishing
marks, gang tatoos, and race/ethnicity. Recently, the Costa Mesa Jail in Orange County, California, as part of their public arrest
log, has expanded these inmate data and opened up an inmate's immigration status to the public, as well, making it the only
jail in the county to make such information publicly reviewable.
As many have argued, US courts have been steadfastly resistant to use the First Amendment to open up juvenile court records to the public, borne by a necessity to protect vulnerable persons from lasting emotional trauma and stigma. Sometimes, however, as is the case in Ohio, these rules concerning privacy and confidentiality can be loosened if the court finds that the interests of public safety outweigh the possibility of harming the accused child. Several high-profile brutal crimes involving children have put pressure on these conventions of secrecy in juvenile courts. For a better discussion of public access to juvenile court proceedings and juvenile records, see "Access to Juvenile Justice" by Kristen Rasmussen (1 April 2012, News Media & the Law).
Sex Offender Search