Criminal Records

What is a criminal record?

A criminal record is a summary of an individual’s arrests, convictions, and other interactions with law enforcement agencies. In addition, personal information is featured on a criminal record, as well, and may include an individual’s age, race, height, weight, eye and hair color, fingerprints, social security number, and more.

Except in rare cases of exemption, criminal records are public records and can be accessed by the general public by request to a law enforcement agency, or through an online criminal background check service. There is no single format or repository for criminal records, and differing forms of an individual’s criminal record may be stored by federal, state, county, and local agencies. 

Criminal records are widely available due to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) of 1967, which granted the public access to records from any federal agency upon request unless a record qualifies for a special exemption. Although the FOIA only applies to federal agencies, most states passed similar laws freeing up records held at the state and county levels, making them public information, as well. 

Criminal record statistics

  • 77 million Americans have a criminal record. This is 1 out of every 3 people in the country.
  • 8 percent of Americans have a felony conviction on their criminal record.
  • About 3 percent of adult Americans have served time in prison.  
  • Around 10.3 million arrests were made in the United States in 2018, 72.8 percent of these were arrests of males. 
  • Misdemeanors, or low-level crimes, account for about 80% of arrests made. 
  • 600,000 inmates are released from U.S. prisons each year. 
  • There are 859,500 registered sex offenders in the United States. 

Sources: NCSL, FBI, Demography study, EJI 

Criminal Record FAQs

What information is included in a criminal record?

There is no standardized format for a criminal record in the United States, and the information included may vary depending on the agency holding the record and an individual’s criminal history. However, a criminal record will commonly feature:

  • Physical description – height, weight, race, eye and hair color, identifying marks, and tattoos
  • Date of birth
  • Address
  • Alias used
  • Social security numbers
  • Fingerprint classification
  • Arrests
  • Convictions
  • Sex offender registration status
  • Traffic offenses
  • Parole violations
  • Dismissals and not guilty verdicts 

How is the severity of offenses classified on a criminal record?

Generally, offenses are classified into three main categories:

  • Infraction – An infraction is a minor violation of the law that is regulated at the state level. Punishment for an infraction is typically a fine or a written warning, rather than a jail or prison sentence. Examples of infractions include minor traffic violations, public nuisance offenses, and littering. 
  • Misdemeanor – A misdemeanor is a crime that is more serious than an infraction, but less severe than a felony, and generally punishable by a term of imprisonment of less than a year, or a term of probation. An individual convicted of a misdemeanor is more likely to serve time in a county or local jail than a federal or state prison. Examples of misdemeanors include driving under the influence, most drug abuse violations, and petty theft.
  • Felony – A felony is the most serious type of crime and generally results in a term of imprisonment of more than one year in a state or federal prison. Examples of felonies include rape, murder, and arson.  

What is the difference between a federal criminal record and a state or county criminal record?

These types of criminal records vary mainly in the class of offenses they report. State and county criminal records list many types of offenses, including those as minor as traffic violations, while federal criminal records list more serious crimes that violate federal law, including kidnapping, identity theft, and child pornography. 

However, crimes listed on a federal criminal record may be drawn from those listed on a state or local criminal record.

Where are criminal records stored?

Criminal records are not stored in one place, but rather in computer databases by government agencies at the federal, state and county levels. Additionally, local police departments and sheriffs’ offices often keep their own databases of criminal records, as well.

At the federal level, the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) is the main repository of criminal records and includes criminal history information reported by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. However, much of the information stored with the NCIC is not made available to the general public due to special exemptions.

All 50 states have repositories of criminal history information, much of which is contributed by local and county law enforcement agencies. 

Finally, county law enforcement agencies, local police departments, municipal courts, and sheriffs’ offices usually have their own databases of criminal records. 

Who can access criminal records?

Generally, criminal records are public information and can be accessed by anyone who makes a request to view them.  

However, there are special exemptions, such as in the case of an open investigation, when the information in a criminal record poses a danger to the general public, or if the individual is a juvenile. Convictions on a criminal record may be “sealed” in court, meaning they still exist in the database, but can not be accessed by the public. 

Where can I obtain a criminal record?

The best way to view a criminal record is to make a formal request to a government agency. The first places to approach are a local county clerk’s office or police department, but individuals may also make a request to view records held by a state repository of criminal records, or federal agencies such as the FBI and DOJ.

In nearly all instances, an individual must fill out a formal, signed application, and pay an administration fee.

How can I search for criminal records on the internet?

There are many criminal background check services on the web that offer to search federal, state, and local databases on an individual’s behalf and deliver the results in one place. However, most charge a fee and require a person to input their credit card information. 

Can information on a criminal record be cleared?

An individual may ask a judge to seal, or expunge, a conviction or arrest on one’s criminal record under certain circumstances. These include if the individual was a juvenile at the time of the offense, it was the first offense the individual committed, or if the offense was a relatively minor one.

The laws pertaining to sealing or expunging offenses on a criminal record vary significantly between jurisdictions and can be quite complicated, necessitating the help of an attorney or other law professional. Only a fraction of requests for expungement are granted. 

How can someone report false information on a criminal record?

Most statewide repositories of criminal history information offer an official means of challenging charges on a criminal background check if the information appears inaccurate or incorrect. 

The process requires filling out a form, detailing why the individual believes the information to be incorrect, and paying an administration fee. Obtaining the initial police report regarding the offense or final court disposition via request is crucial, as these documents can serve as important evidence in making one’s case to amend the criminal record.