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.
At the same time, an information explosion has made it easy for anyone to pull up arrest records in an instant. Employers, banks, college admissions officers and landlords, among others, routinely check records online. The information doesn’t typically describe what happened next.
Many people who have never faced charges, or have had charges dropped, find that a lingering arrest record can ruin their chance to secure employment, loans and housing. Even in cases of a mistaken arrest, the damaging documents aren’t automatically removed. In other instances, arrest information is forwarded to the FBI but not necessarily updated there when a case is thrown out locally. Only half of the records with the FBI have fully up-to-date information.
“There is a myth that if you are arrested and cleared that it has no impact,” says Paul Butler, professor of law at Georgetown Law. “It’s not like the arrest never happened.”
Further analysis by the University of South Carolina team, performed at the request of The Wall Street Journal, suggests that men with arrest records—even absent a formal charge or conviction—go on to earn lower salaries. They are also less likely to own a home compared with people who have never been arrested.
The same holds true for graduation rates and whether a person will live below the poverty line.
For example, more than 95% of subjects without arrests in the survey graduated high school or earned an equivalent diploma. The number falls to 84.4% for those who were arrested and yet not convicted.