The Problems with Public Records
Do you know what a public record is?
Even if you do today, you might not tomorrow — because the definition of what a public record is continuously evolving in today’s digital age.
It has thrown us for a loop in defining, and redefining, what a public record is — especially in the United States.
Even if we can agree on a definition, that doesn’t *really* help us — because we might align on the what but that doesn’t mean we agree on the why, how, and when.
How far back should we be able to easily access records? Does it depend on the type of record? How should they be stored? Should everyone in the public be able to access certain information?
You can’t begin to answer these questions without analyzing how we got here.
What is a public record?
A public record can be defined as information, minutes, files, accounts, or other records that are not considered confidential and have been recorded and/or filed by a public agency.
In 1966, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was passed in the United States with the intention of providing transparency and accountability into government records.
This is the traditional U.S. definition — public record definitions and degrees of availability varies drastically around the world.
In the United States, what constitutes a public record is quite broad — especially in today’s digital age where new technologies are developing and evolving.
Some examples of public records include: criminal records, court records, military records, civil suits, census data, tax liens and judgments, property information, marriage licenses, and bankruptcy rulings.
Increasingly, digital recordings like body cam footage, government official text messages, and official emails are being seen as public record.
Access to each of these types of public records can vary across jurisdictions.
While the United States has the largest availability of public records — especially those that can help prevent future harm to the general public — it is far from a perfect system.
The original idea behind public records was government transparency and accountability. The definition and execution of public records today is much different than the original idea — whether that’s a good thing or not is a question yet to be answered.
In the United States, information like home addresses, email addresses, and phone numbers of the general public are increasingly being considered “public records” because they’re collected by government bodies like the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).
Which is why public record search sites and people search sites can divulge this personal identifying information on a whim.
Yes, your personal information, like home address and phone number, are out there on dozens of sites across the world wide web for anyone to see.
A bit dangerous, right?
The internet should not be a phonebook anyone can access.
It’s why here at Garbo we call these sites Stalking-as-a-Service — because they enable stalking, doxing, and even death. Sure, maybe they help the occasional classmate or family reunite… but this wasn’t the intention of public records.
These sites are dangerous, not protective.
Redefining public records for the digital age
I can find your entire home address, email address, and phone number history in a matter of minutes.
You know what’s much harder to find?
If you have a history of violent, harmful behavior.
Why is that?
Why did personal identifying information become an easily accessible and nearly free public record but records of bad behavior are expensive and hard to find?
- Studies show that 63-71% of rapists are serial rapists
- Rapists often commit other violent acts — in one survey the 120 self-admitted rapists were responsible for 1,225 separate acts of interpersonal violence
- Over 10 million individuals will experience gender-based violence in the U.S. this year
We believe that the definition of public records should broaden to focus not only on governmental transparency and safety, but on public safety and accountability.
Because if we can eliminate the power of people who are serial rapists, a quarter of the violence against women and children would disappear.
This means making criminal records, and other reports of violent, harmful behavior like orders of protections, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaints and civil suits easy to access.
The definition of public records should also be redefined to restrict its availability of personal identifying information that can be weaponized by bad actors. The average non-violent citizen that isn’t causing harm should not have their detailed personal information available for anyone to use to stalk, dox, or murder them.
We need a better solution.
We must try to find the balance between privacy and protection.
The problems with public records
For the rest of this piece, we’re going to focus mostly on the criminal record problem — which touches on three government systems: the police, the criminal courts, and jails/prison.
Before we get to the problems with public records, we have to talk about the criminal justice problems that are then reflected across these specific government systems:
- In 2011, 12.33% of arrests were for “Drug abuse violations”
- In 2011, 0.157% arrests were for “forcible rape” (the federal definition of rape changed after 2012 and is no longer reported on — which is a problem in itself)
You can view all arrest data here.
- 46.30% of federally incarcerated people are there for drug related offenses
- 0.80% of federally incarcerated people are there for sexual abuse offenses
You can view all conviction data between 2014 - 2019 here.
This means that sexual assault (and other gender-based violence offenses) make up less than 1% of arrests and convictions.
This is while drug abuse violations are not only a large percentage of all arrests, the conviction rate for them being the “most serious offense” is much higher than all other types of offenses.
The criminal justice system is a very broken system that focuses too much on arresting and convicting individuals on non-violent, non-harmful offenses while leaving offenders of violent crimes in our communities.
When 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men will experience severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime, we have to ask — who is committing these offenses?
Out of every 1,000 suspected rape perpetrators referred to prosecutors, 370 have at least one prior felony conviction, including 100 who have 5 or more. That means over 35% of rapists have a felony offense and 10% have five or more offenses.
60% of violent offenders with felony charges had multiple prior arrest charges, including 40% with 5 or more, and 23% with 10 or more.
The studies show that a violent and/or sexual offender is most often a repeat offender.
Yet, again, the system focuses on arresting and convicting individuals who are committing non-violent, non-harmful acts.
Within the prosecuting systems (usually the criminal justice system, but sometimes civil or family court), we need to ensure that these types of violent offenses are being investigated and perpetrators are being held accountable for their actions. When 49.5% of people incarcerated at the federal level are in there for drug offenses, while .80% are incarerated for sexual abuse — we know our systems are incredibly broken.
We can’t solve the criminal justice system problem over night.
We can, however, hold a mirror up to it, try to reduce the biases and injustices seen with it, and inform the public about how backwards and broken the system is.
Which is why we should not only focus on holding perpetrators of violent and harmful offenders accountable, we should ensure the public can proactively know who these individuals are and make personal safety decisions if they want to interact with them.
To solve this, we have to first solve the public record problem.
Many of these problems stem across ALL public records, but we dig deeper into how this manifests itself within criminal records — especially the criminal records of violent, harmful behavior.
Like most things, public records aren’t black and white. They’re grey — and each county varies in shade.
Problem #1: Public record access
The biggest problem with criminal records is their accessibility.
There are 3,005 counties across the United States — and each one provides different access to criminal (and other types of) public records.
For example, some counties provide easy access to public records via the internet. Others require you to manually visit a courthouse in-person. Sometimes you have to file an official form via snail mail while other times you can just click a button online.
Because availability of this information varies so much, especially the information that can save lives, it enables bad actors to continue their behaviors because uncovering it can be nearly impossible.
Problem #2: Missing data
Even if a county provides easy access to criminal public records online, there will most likely be missing data on every record.
Here at Garbo, we’ve aggregated over 2,200 data sources across the United States. This required creating a standardized lens to view each record through.
After this process, we realized that even the same counties can have missing data from record to record. For example, one record might contain an individual’s address, and another record in the same county won’t. This goes for things like hair color, data of birth, and even what they were actually arrested for or convicted of.
Missing data in public records makes it difficult to get the full picture of any type of government public record — but especially criminal records as they make their way through the police, court, and prison/jail systems.
Problem #3: Inconsistencies
Just like missing data within records, there are inconsistencies across the reporting of information from county to county.
This means that each county reports different information on the same type of public record. One county might provide access to mugshots while another county doesn’t even provide access to a birthday — making the record almost unusable.
There are also inconsistencies in the way in which information manifests itself on a public record. From how a date is shown (MM/DD/YYYY or YYYY/MM/DD) to race (W, White, Caucasian, C) also hinders wide scale standardization.
The fact that public records are not standardized across all U.S. counties creates holes in the reporting of not only government workings, it creates major holes around the reporting of violent and harmful behavior.
Problem #4: Mistakes
Because records are manually transcribed or documented by individuals, they are prone to mistakes and negligent oversight by individuals.
This could mean misspelling someone’s name, inputting the wrong birthday, or forgetting to enter in a penal code.
As counties become more digitized, the mistakes will likely happen less as technology takes over and can systematically synthesize information even with mistakes.
Until then, we still have counties just starting to digitize paper records, which we’ll see a lot of mistakes happen in because of manual inputs by humans.
Problem #5: Cost
Last but definitely not least is the cost of public records.
In New York City, gaining access to a single public record can cost up to $95.
Yes, you read that right — $95 for a single record.
In the last few decades, local governments have realized they can charge for access to public records — even as the ease of maintaining and storing these records became increasingly less costly and time consuming thanks to technology.
While this has created a new revenue stream for governments, it defeats the purpose of a public record. A record isn’t public if the public can’t afford it.
Solutions to the public record problem
It’s hard to fix a broken system.
But the hardest problems are often the ones most worth solving.
To solve the public record problem, ideally, we’d overhaul the American public record system completely. We’d make them free and easily accessible. We’d standardize reporting across every county and make them available in one singular database. And we’d layer on technology to reduce human errors.
That’s one of Garbo’s ultimate visions: easy and affordable (if not free!) access to public records — especially those most related to violent and harmful behavior.
And we’re getting there.
Garbo has standardized the reporting of criminal records across counties — we’ve jumped a lot of hurdles in terms of formatting the data by standardizing birthdates, names, and other information — but because we’re working with a disparate, dirty data problem, there is no perfect solution.
We have over 2,200 data sources and 1 billion criminal records today — one of the largest databases of criminal records. However, we limit access to the types of offenses available on our platform to focus only on the reporting of violent, harmful behavior rather than perpetuating the injustices seen within our government.
By focusing on the pieces of the problem we can begin to solve — dirty, disparate, and expensive data, we can begin to lay the foundation for the next generation of defining and accessing public records that tries to find the balance between privacy and protection.