Google is America’s 21st Century Pillory. Continuing to Shame Ex-Offenders Hurts All of Us

Since Colonial days, our nation has had systems, both formal and informal, to punish people who break society’s rules. The punishments have run the gamut from public shaming in wooden pillories to the ultimate penalty, death. Public shaming once was a common punishment because the cost of putting someone in jail was high and the stays in jail temporary. Humiliation was a quick way to deter future unlawful conduct before the person went back to daily life and work.

Fast-forward to the 21st Century: prison sentences are getting longer. America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, imprisoning 2.3 million people a year at an average cost of more than $30,000 per inmate. Our hope is that, while in prison, people will get ready to emerge and re-enter society, abide by its laws, and lead fruitful lives. Our goal is to offer released prisoners a second chance.

Even though we have rehabilitation programs in prisons and re-entry networks outside prisons, 65 percent of the people released from America’s prisons later return. We must ask whether the rehabilitation and re-entry programs are failing, or if there are other systemic factors underlying this damning statistic.

I believe there is a huge and largely unaddressed issue – the Internet generally and Google searches in particular. It is trite to say the lightning-fast pace of technological advances in global instant information sharing has outstripped society’s ability to set mores for this new reality. We have seen its numerous effects, with the First Amendment and practical logistics smacking headlong into rampant fake social media accounts and Internet scams. Our legal institutions cannot keep up. As a result, long-held American principles have been deformed.

In the times of our founding fathers, public humiliation in the pillories lasted only days. In 21st Century America, public humiliation is never-ending, thanks to the powerful and ubiquitous search engines of the monolith Google. Ex-offenders know this all too well. When they emerge after “doing their time,” ready for their “second chance,” they encounter an employment market that does not want them, leaving them with few legitimate ways to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves.

We have a big problem. I’ve seen it firsthand, working as a volunteer in the prison system nearly half of my life. Given the constraints people face when they get out, I am surprised that the recidivism rate isn’t higher. If people come out of prison and cannot get decent jobs, we cannot expect the rates of re-entry to prison to go down.

Well-meaning legislation like “Ban the Box,” which prohibits criminal record questions on job applications, is ineffective. In the age of Google, all an employer has to do is Google whether the person has a record. Up pops mug shots, criminal records and media coverage of the person’s crime. It is the modern equivalent of Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter.

Legislators urgently need to wake up to the reality that second chances are being lost. But, typically, politicians miss the problem or are late to address it. Some states are working on “Clean Slate” laws that will automatically expunge low-level crimes after certain conditions are met. Once expunged, the government records will no longer be on servers that can be picked up in a Google search. This is a step in the right direction, but it has been done only on a state-by-state basis. And these Clean Slate laws don’t go far enough because third-party servers that contain articles about the crime are still searchable.
Our federal and state governments need to be engaged in a serious debate on this issue, which raises difficult questions about the First Amendment, the regulation of a private company that has essentially become a public utility, and the public’s right to know about crimes in other people’s past.

Grappling with these huge questions that reach deep into our society’s foundations will not be easy, but we must start. If we do not, we are acknowledging as a society that people with criminal records will be publicly shamed throughout their lives, even after they have served their time. We are committing them to permanent scarlet letters, not temporary pillories. The effects on society will be vast: perpetuating a high recidivism rate, wrecking families, contributing to our drug epidemic.

Millions of Americans have served their time and deserve second chances. Let’s not see those chances denied by a few keystrokes and a Google search.

Brian Hamilton co-founded Sageworks, the country’s first fintech and largest provider of software to U.S. banks. He sold the company to a leading private equity firm in 2018. He is also the founder of Inmates to Entrepreneurs, a national program that helps ex-offenders start their own small businesses. Inmates to Entrepreneurs is supported by the Brian Hamilton Foundation.