Privatizing criminal stigma: Experience, intergroup contact, and public views about publicizing arrest records

AuthorSarah E Lageson,Justin T Pickett,Megan Denver
Published date01 July 2019
Date01 July 2019
Subject MatterArticles
Privatizing criminal
stigma: Experience,
intergroup contact,
and public views about
publicizing arrest records
Sarah E Lageson
Rutgers University-Newark, USA
Megan Denver
Northeastern University, USA
Justin T Pickett
University at Albany, The State University of NewYork, USA
Current U.S. policy allows private companies to publish arrest records prior to con-
viction in print and online sources, yet little is known regarding the extent to which
people actively search for criminal records or whether the public supports these pol-
icies. Utilizing two large public opinion sur veys (N ¼1008 and N ¼1601), we find that
approximately 15% of Americans searched online for conviction records last year
(an estimated 38 million people), but that a strong majority (88%) oppose the publica-
tion of arrest records by private companies. We measure correlates of opposition to
record disclosure and find that having high-quality interpersonal contact with an arrest-
ee diminishes support for publicizing arrest records and also tempers views of recid-
ivism risk for those with nonviolent convictions. Findings suggest that learning firsthand
about the negative consequences of contemporary criminal labels changes popularly
held views on the value of immediate arrest record disclosure.
Corresponding author:
Sarah E Lageson, School of Criminal Justice, Rutgers University-Newark, Center for Law & Justice #547,
123 Washington Street, Newark, NJ 07102, USA.
Punishment & Society
2019, Vol. 21(3) 315–341
!The Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1462474518772040
criminal records, internet, public opinion, technology, stigma
I see these nurse assistants with the Jail Report running around showing it and you
can see them snickering. It’s humiliating. It hurt me. My business went into the
crapper ... I can understand if you’re convicted. That’s something else ... But with
this you’re tarred and feathered, man. I was tarred and feathered by that magazine.
—Stevie Dement, whose case was dismissed after he was arrested for battery (quoted
in Johnson (2011: 8–9))
In the digital age, there has been considerable debate over the merits of making
criminal records widely available (Conley et al., 2012; Jacobs and Larrauri, 2011;
Roberts, 2015). Because arrest, charge, and conviction data are now so easy to dis-
seminate, proliferations of mug shots, arrest logs, and court records appear not only
in printed publications, like magazines and newspapers, but also online on both
government and privately run websites (Jacobs, 2015; Lageson, 2016a). In turn,
these posts often reappear on mobile apps, in social media posts, and in routine
Google search results for a person’s name (Lageson and Maruna, 2018; Stacey,
2017). Transparency advocates support expansive access to increasingly digital crim-
inal justice information, citing the public’s right to know under the First Amendment
(Lee, 2018). Critics, on the other hand, warn against the devastating impact of online
criminal records in increasingly broad aspects of life (Stelloh, 2017). Record disclo-
sure impacts millions of individuals; approximately 30% of U.S. adults report at least
one arrest by their early 20s (Barnes et al., 2015; Brame et al., 2012), and an estimated
8% of the U.S. adult population has a felony conviction (Shannon et al., 2017).
Sociologists have long-noted cultural fascination with crime and punishment
(Beckett and Sasson, 2000; Greer, 2010; Katz, 1987, 2016; Sparks, 1992). Public
displays of criminal punishment and the labeling of “offenders” is central to
modern society (Black, 1984; Erikson, 1966; Garland, 2001; Pickett and Baker,
2017). In the age of “digital rule,” however, the scope of punishment has expanded
dramatically (Jones, 2000). Though laws have erred on the side of making nearly
all criminal justice information available in the name of transparency (Corda,
2016) even when posted information is outdated or inaccurate (McKenzie,
2016), there is growing consensus among scholars that the digital trail left
behind produces inequitable punishment (Lageson, 2017; Stacey, 2017).
While there is some evidence that Americans routinely seek criminal record
information outside of traditional housing and employment domains
316 Punishment & Society 21(3)

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