Under a newly enacted policy, the Michigan Department of Corrections has announced its intent to drop the names of 200,000 ex-cons from the department’s publicly accessible online Offender Tracking Information System. Since 1999, OTIS has provided Michigan residents with a free online database listing all individuals who have committed either a felony or misdemeanor. As it currently operates, OTIS users can search not only current prisoners, parolees and probationers, but also past offenders whose sentences have been served.
Being unwillingly listed in a public search engine clearly invades the privacy of released individuals who have theoretically paid their debts to society. However, this move by the corrections department will not shield former prisoners and convicts; individuals equipped with either a Visa or MasterCard and $10 to spare can purchase access to any criminal record in the state through the Michigan State Police’s ICHAT gateway. The removal of names from the OTIS system deserves praise, and the Michigan State Police ought to follow suit and reform the analogous ICHAT program.
Although the OTIS and ICHAT aim to protect the state, they do so by infringing upon the rights that should be granted to all citizens — even ex-cons. Full criminal records should not be made easily available to any individual with $10. The sheer simplicity of online databases makes it easy for individuals — even those without a legitimate purpose — to anonymously dig up sensitive and damaging information about people who have already served time.
Despite the removal of the ex-cons’ names from an online database, the Corrections department will still provide information about them for callers. There is an argument that criminal records still must be accessible to protect the welfare of communities and workplaces. Even though it is still disconcerting that criminal records can be accessed by anyone with the time and will to make a phone call, the decision to take ex-cons off the online OTIS database is a worthwhile measure.