LAST YEAR, I WAS working with a woman of around 25 who had shoplifted when she was 16. As we sat together and googled her name, sure enough, up popped her mug shot, which was similar to one she might have had for robbing a bank.
Is it fair for someone to be labeled so long after a crime has been committed? America is the great myth and experiment in world history. It is built on many ideas – none of which is more important than the belief that everyone deserves a second chance. Many of our ancestors came here to begin again. We believe that, no matter who you are or who your parents were, you can still succeed in this country. We also believe you can leave your past behind you; you can always start again. We have faults as a nation to be sure, and the myth is not a uniform reality, but it is a construct we all strive for.
Ironically and tragically, one large group of American citizens is routinely excluded from the second chance, or rather, the chips are significantly stacked against them. About 1.51 million people are incarcerated in the U.S today; another 4.65 million are on parole. Most people agree that you should pay for the things you do wrong. The purpose of this article is not to question the idea that people who have committed crimes must be punished; let’s accept that as a given. But we should question the length of time people have to pay for misdeeds and the resident issues of fairness.
I suspect many people would be surprised to know that someone who commits a crime and pays for it through the judicial system serves a second, and seemingly infinite, sentence. With the power of the internet and in particular, Google, you type someone’s name and can learn many things about them. For regular and unknown people, they may not have many Google results. But if you have been incarcerated, it is probable that your name and previous crime pops up prominently in a search.
Is this fair? I would say this would be completely fair if people in society by and large adhered to the principle of giving people a second chance after they serve their sentence. In theory, there is nothing wrong with, say, an employer knowing that someone has committed a crime. That is not the issue. The issue is when people – whether they are a college admissions worker or a screener in a human resources department – routinely block people’s ability to have a second chance simply because a past crime shows up in a Google search. Often, an application is immediately deleted or tossed in the trash once a Google search reveals a past criminal history. This is applied to even less serious charges such as DWIs and small drug charges. Google is metaphorically giving guns to users who are often discriminatory in their decision-making processes and appealing to the worst in all of us – our human inclination to label people on one piece of data, albeit an important one.
What has been the result of this bias? In America, people who have already done their time are systematically denied a second chance due to the internet’s ability to emphasize that past. This happens all the time for former inmates trying to get a job or trying to get a better job. Google is unintentionally contributing to the growth of this bias. It is making it nearly impossible for an individual to have gainful employment even years or decades after completing their sentence. It is no wonder that as much as three-fourths of ex-offenders are jobless up to a year after release and less than half are working full-time five years after their release. This does not even consider the quality of the jobs former inmates get. We cannot say Google is solely responsible for the problem of bias, but it is making discrimination significantly worse.
What are the costs to us, the people without criminal records? Without work, former inmates cannot generate tax dollars and may have to rely on government assistance to survive. If they cannot find meaningful employment, they also gravitate back to former lifestyles, and in some cases, the only option they may have to take care of themselves and their family is to return to their criminal pasts. We should not be surprised that within three years of re-entering society, about two-thirds of released prisoners were rearrested. Within five years of release, three out of four were rearrested. The United States has the largest prison population in the world and the second-highest rate of incarceration in the world, where approximately 666 people per 100,000 are in prison. The average cost per inmate, annually, equates to $33,274 and ranges from a low of $14,780 in Alabama to a high of $69,355 in New York. In total, the United States spends $80 billion on public corrections agencies annually. America: land of the free?
Google has a near-monopoly on search. Google may do many good things. But, like all big and unchecked institutions with monopolistic power, it can still do bad things; in this case, horrific things. People who have been incarcerated should have a way to expunge their record from Google after a period of time or through some fair process. Maybe Google could wipe out the information after the person completes probation or parole. Obviously, an armed robbery is significantly worse than jaywalking, so there has to be some consideration for the seriousness of the crime. But if you shoplift when you’re 16, that shouldn’t be the first thing people find out about you for the rest of your life. I don’t have the exact solution but the problem is massive, and it is something that must be remedied. There has to be thoughtful alternatives and appropriate policing when it comes to social justice and technology. Some tech companies are doing this. Twitter has banned people and stopped providing “verified check marks” (provided to authenticate accounts of public figures) to white supremacists. Google itself, in an effort to combat fake news, tweaked its algorithms to demote low-quality content in search results.
This would be another case where Google needs to act responsibly and fairly (and quickly) to limit access for the greater good of society. This is not a matter of political ideology; it is simple matter of fairness and what makes sense. If private companies will not properly remedy the social injustice they are responsible for, then the government must step in and make them do it. The entire ethos of giving people a second chance in America is at stake. And so are millions of lives of people looking to make a clean start.