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.
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.
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).
Public inmate searches are not available in Canada. Details of an inmate's placement status in Canadian federal institutions is recorded in CSC's Offender Management System (OMS), but access to the OMS and inmate records requires staff security clearance.
Details of a Canadian's criminal record are maintained on the RCMP's Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC). The criminal records available on CPIC are NOT open to the Canadian public, nor are any current inmate rosters, lists of recent arrests or bookings, or active detainees at municipal jails, or local or provincial detention centres. The CPIC is only accessible to Canadian police agencies, and the United States National Crime Information Centre. The Canadian Firearms Registry Online (CFRO) is also part of the CPIC database, and is widely accessible to Canadian police agencies without restriction, but not to the public.
The RCMP also maintains the National Sex Offender Registry, but again it is NOT available to the public. The National Sex Offender Registry includes an offender's: name, date of birth, current address, current photograph, identifying marks (e.g. tattoos, scars), vehicle information, type of employment and address, and the sex offence(s) for which the offender has been convicted. Learn about the legal terms at the Justice Department's Sex Offender Information Registration Act.