- Arrest Record
- Offense Details
- Charges Filed
- Disposition Details
- Trial Records
- And More!
Record-keeping is the backbone of law enforcement, from collecting witness statements to recording steps of the booking process to supplying prosecutors with accurate information.
Each arrest is documented using standard practices, and records follow suspects and inmates from evidence to conviction or release. Jail records are an important component of the justice system, because they provide proof of chain of custody.
A nonprofit organization that studied the U.S. justice system determined in 2016 that there are more jails than colleges in the country. Their report showed that 2.3 million people are incarcerated in the country, housed in 1,719 state prisons, 3,283 jails, 79 Indian jails, 942 juvenile jails, along with many more immigration detention facilities, federal prisons, and other facilities.
When a suspect is sent to jail, it is often for a short period while awaiting trial or to serve a short sentence for a misdemeanor (prison sentences are usually for longer periods or sentences for more serious crimes). Serving time in jail may mean a suspect is too important to release while waiting for trial, or too much of a risk as he may not return for his court date. Others are held in jail until they can post bail – if they can't post bail, they're held until their court date, which in some jurisdictions means they spend enough time in custody to serve their sentence before a judge decides if they're guilty.
Jail records include proof of identity, including mugshots and other booking records that establish the arrest and custody of a suspect by police. These booking records are the beginning of a complete dossier on the suspect and his alleged crime, from his physical appearance to identifying characteristics like tattoos, to preliminary medical records that indicate any special treatment or medical therapy that might be necessary in jail. (Some infectious diseases may require an inmate to be sequestered from others.)
When a person arrives at a jail, his belongings are taken away and documented. He is asked to sign a form that shows the inventory of these belongings, including for instance shoes, a wallet, and clothing. This record is meant to ensure that when the inmate is released from jail the same items will be returned to him.
When a suspect or convict arrives at a jail, the records follow him, and more are created: every time an inmate has a medical appointment, a court hearing scheduled, or visit from his attorney, records are updated. These jail records are crucial to both the county that maintains the jail and to the inmate himself, to prove whether he is provided basic services – and to keep track of him. There have been many cases in which records get mixed up and cause jails to release the wrong inmate, or for inmates to linger in custody without proper court hearings for months longer than constitutionally allowed.
The public is entitled to know who is being held in jail, so records are generally accessible – but there's great variety in the way records can be discovered. Juvenile records are generally sealed due to the age of the individual involved, but if the person is charged with a felony as an adult, that is a public record. Also, records of those accused or convicted of crimes against children or the elderly must be redacted to remove any identifying information about his victims before they can be released.
Many counties make information about those in custody available online, but others lack the funding to digitize documents. The latter may require written requests for information. Searching for inmate records may begin with the state correctional department's website or the sheriff department's website for the jurisdiction where the individual was arrested.
Jail records may remain available to the public long after an individual has served his time and was released. Individuals may request that records be expunged or sealed, which if granted may block them from public view but they will remain available to law enforcement officials.