The following report from Michael Friedman of the Brennan Center for Justice appeared in Truthout on November 23, 2015.
The number of Americans with a criminal history has risen sharply over the past three decades. Today, nearly one-third of the adult working age population has a criminal record. In fact, so many Americans have a criminal record that counting them all is nearly impossible.
According to a 2012 Department of Justice survey , state criminal history repositories contain more than 100 million records. These are popularly referred to as "rap sheets" or "criminal records" although most people who have them have never been convicted of a serious crime. These repositories chronicle nearly every arrest, regardless of whether or not it leads to an indictment or conviction. And while 100 million records do exist, this figure almost certainly overstates the true number of individuals who have been arrested at any point in their lives, since one person can have an arrest record in multiple states.
In an effort to make complete criminal histories easily accessible to all law enforcement agencies, the FBI maintains a database indexing these records known as the Interstate Identification Index (III). Whenever a suspected criminal is arrested and fingerprinted by a local, state, or federal law enforcement agency; those records are forwarded to the FBI to be included in the III. The FBI assigns each subject a unique identification number that indexes all state records existing for that person, meaning each number corresponds to a distinct individual. As of July 1, 2015, more than 70 million people have records indexed by the III.
The Numbers in Perspective
America now houses roughly the same number people with criminal records as it does four-year college graduates.
Nearly half of black males and almost 40 percent of white males are arrested by the age 23.
If all arrested Americans were a nation, they would be the world's 18th largest. Larger than Canada. Larger than France. More than three times the size of Australia.
The number of Americans with criminal records today is larger than the entire US population in 1900.
Holding hands, Americans with arrest records could circle the earth three times.
Read full report here.