Nearly 70 million Americans have a criminal history, and their brushes with the law too often haunt them long after they’ve paid their debts to society. As I detailed in a previous piece, just dealing with the criminal-justice system can be enough to sink someone’s career. This is, at least in part, because some companies collect and post mugshots online, and then charge to remove the pictures from their databases. It’s essentially an extortion racket — and a highly effective one at that.
Eighteen states have passed laws to combat sites that engage in these predatory practices, but the laws are not easy to enforce. The problem is surely exacerbated by the fact that law-enforcement agencies are increasingly engaging in similar behavior. Taken together, mugshot mills and police departments’ online “awareness campaigns” can ruin people’s lives and erode trust between the police and the community.
We’ve all heard some variant of the phrase “the Internet is forever.” It’s one of those clichés that became a cliché because it’s true: What gets put online doesn’t get taken down easily. Mugshot mills use that fact to their financial advantage, and conservatives and liberals should join together to crack down on their business model. But while enforcing laws against mugshot extortion is hard, keeping criminal investigations out of the public eye shouldn’t be. The truly low-hanging fruit is police departments’ posting of mugshots online, and criminal-justice reformers on both sides of the aisle should grab it.