This is a true story but the name as been changed. A boy named Christopher grew up in beautiful Baltimore City, surrounded by loving family and neighbors. He went to a good school – a private school, where the students received scholarships and tuition breaks on a sliding scale, and his prospects were bright. One day, just after Christopher turned 18, he was hanging out with some friends at the local Burger King. A police car pulled over, asking to see ID. Christopher did not know the cop had spotted a friend with a beer bottle – and all of them were underage. Some of his friends had guns illegally as well. Christopher was arrested and his picture was posted on the police department’s Facebook page and on three different independent mugshot websites.
You might think that was the end of Christopher’s bright future. But when he served his time he excelled in his unit without any disciplinary actions. He earned his upholstery degree, his GED, and a handful of certificate classes and long-term groupcommitments (Bible studies, etc.). Upon departure from prison, Christopher entered into a transitional program for men formerly incarcerated, where once again he excelled, obtaining high grades in classes, networking with potential employers, and serving the building selflessly.
It looked like he might be back on track. But then, there are the photos on the mugshot websites. The sites’ operators want $600 to remove them. Christopher’s case manager tells him that the maximum he will likely earn with these photos is $14/hour – but for the next ten years, likely only $9-12/hour. He won’t be able to work with children, most likely, since parents could likely see his photo online. Many potential employers will scoff at the potential of having Christopher work for them, knowing public ridicule could be harsher than it’s worth.
Christopher represents hundreds of thousands of people who face a similar plight: he/she has committed a crime, served time, engaged in positive reform in the community … and never can move passed their past due to photos posted connected to an arrest. On some of these websites, the information is not even accurate. Mug shots are taken at the time of arrest, not conviction. Why does a single mistake have to dog somebody forever if they cannot pay the extortion money these websites demand?
The Internet potentially makes every encounter with the criminal justice system permanent. Some more serious crimes are required to register frequently for many years, regardless of how long the offender has lived a productive life and made worthwhile contributions to society. And in some cases, the permanence of the Internet record itself seems like more punishment than the crime itself. Consider the case of Zach Anderson, a 19-year-old boy who had consensual sex with a girl who lied about her age and said she was 17, when in fact she was 14. Even the girl’s parents did not want him punished. But now Zach must register as a sex offender for 25 years, and that status will be known to anybody who is interested at the click of a button.
It is not just that Zach will always have some explaining to do, it’s challenging for sex offenders to obtain housing, jobs, even education. It is a hallmark of democracy that the criminal justice system operates in the sunshine to prevent abuses by the authority. But when can people who have had encounters with the criminal justice, either arrested or convicted of crimes be allowed to recall their privacy? How long should it be before they can claim the right to be forgotten? How long should it be for the worst mistake a person may have ever made—the low point of their lives—have to be a hurdle for them in reconstructing a positive future.
Some police departments have stopped routinely posting mug shots to their Facebook pages, either for all people, or for minors. Sure the public has a “right to know” about the activities of the criminal justice system. But at some point, under certain circumstances, shouldn’t people be able to reclaim their right to privacy as well?
Beth Awalt, Graduate Student
Master of Arts in Emerging Media
Loyola University Maryland