A few years ago, an employee of a government agency – we call him “Jerry” – was arrested on what appeared to be serious charges. According to press releases from the government agency, which were widely reported in various news outlets across the state, Jerry had essentially cheated his government employer out of thousands of dollars.
A few months later, Jerry pled guilty to a far lesser crime – basically accidental misappropriation of public funds – and was convicted of a misdemeanor. It was absurdly overwhelming, and those involved quickly realized that while Jerry had honestly made a mistake, his real misstep ran counter to certain political interests.
Still, to get it over with and get his life back as soon as possible, Jerry pleaded guilty. He paid a penalty and moved on.
After Alabama passed its new erasure law earlier this year, Jerry’s record was erased and his past transgressions were to disappear forever and never enter his life again.
Except the internet never forgets.
If you google Jerry’s real name – and it should now be obvious why I don’t use it – the first and only result is stories about his arrest, his conviction and dozens of news stories about his alleged crimes.
That’s because Jerry is like most normal people. The average person doesn’t have a real internet presence. Outside of high school athletics, the average person never has their name in newspaper print or a story about them on the nightly TV news.
Because of this, when the average person is arrested, they become their lone internet presence. Your claim to shame, so to speak.
And it never, ever goes away.
That’s a small hole in Alabama’s extinction law. For all the good it does — and the law is rare for this state, helping the average Alabamaan in numerous positive ways — it leaves that gaping underbelly ripe for abuse.
I know this from experience, because research is my job. And the second step in any research is to search that person through the various internet search engines after they have passed the standard court scrutiny.
Employers do the same. Especially if that employer is hiring for a top-level position or for a position that could involve handling sensitive or expensive materials.
And here lies the biggest problem: There is no official post-deletion court record to determine what became of these charges.
In most cases, news organizations do not provide follow-up reports on the thousands of arrests they report each year. That’s a problem in and of itself. But this problem is even greater in cases like Jerry’s, where the sensational arrest stories are not followed up and no one reports the relatively minor misdemeanor charge at the end. Or, in the case of many of the people featured in those mugshots, there was no conviction at all.
This is not a flaw in the Erasure Act itself. Rather, it is another long-held norm that has served to harm primarily poor people and people of color for generations.
But while the state couldn’t force news outlets to go back and delete stories about people whose records were deleted, it could play a role in supporting news outlets that volunteer to do the right thing and delete the stories themselves .
Recently, some major newspapers, including the Boston Globe and The Cleveland Plain Dealer, decided to start a deletion process that would allow people with deletions to request that previous news stories about their crimes be deleted from newspapers’ digital archives.
All newspapers and news agencies should follow suit.
There’s no valid reason to refuse to erase old stories that hurt people long after they’ve served their time and paid their debts (assuming they were even convicted).
Of course, there are exceptions, and any news outlet should judge each request based on historical significance and other factors, but there’s no excuse for blanket denial of a deletion.
And the state could help by providing news agencies with timely delete lists and information that would make it easier for the media to make decisions. A volunteer task force to act as a liaison between the state and news outlets – to liaise with newspapers on old stories and encourage newspaper involvement – would also help.
Very positive progress has been made to help those with criminal records move beyond these mistakes and become productive, employable citizens. And isn’t that the ultimate goal of our correctional system?
Old news should not stand in the way of this progress.