Sarah Esther Lageson. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2020 pp. vii-242. $34.95 cloth. ISBN 9780190872007
Critical studies of security have long examined the role of information technology, databases, dataveillance and predictive risk technologies in emerging security infrastructures. These studies will be immeasurably aided by Sarah E. Lageson’s new book on criminal records in the United States, Digital Punishment: Privacy, Stigma and the Harms of Data-Driven Surveillance. Ambitious, highly readable and replete with both high-level analysis and intensive subject interviews, Digital Punishment provides a ground-up view of the United States criminal records system and the often maddening constellation of agencies, data brokers, and private citizens involved therein.
The United States has an opaque and fragmented criminal records management “system.” The word system deserves the quotation marks because, as Lageson effectively demonstrates, criminal record keeping is “disordered” and broken up across myriad public databases and private data brokers. In addition, as Lageson explains, the proliferation of private data brokers and self-appointed ‘digilantes’ make it even more difficult to determine what information is available about one’s criminal history. As she points out, an individual will rarely know what is in their ‘rap sheet’ until they are being denied jobs or housing. Unable to speak of a criminal record as a singular object, Dr. Lageson instead refers to the “criminal record canon.” “Cannon” is an effective shorthand that captures how, for example, different versions of someone’s rap sheet may exist on multiple public and private database, while that person’s mugshot may appear on a local ‘crime watch’ website operated by a local citizen who wants to keep their community ‘safe.’
Criminal records in the United States are, Lageson writes in her introduction, “disordered,” “commodified,” a form of “surveillance” and “disparate.” (pp. 7-9). Disordered in the sense that supposedly authoritative criminal records may come from one of many official government sources, or from a data broker operating in the market for personal data. Also disordered in the sense that individuals looking for criminal record information are able to circumvent legal barriers in order to access supposedly sealed criminal histories using the internet. “Commodified” because, owing in part to the publicly available nature of most criminal histories and governments’ need to contract with private data providers, criminal records are now a sought-after goldmine for data brokers, security firms, and credit rating agencies. “Surveillance” in the sense that they are effective not only for their “real and profound consequences” but also because “the broader gaze of digital punishment hangs over a person like a cloud, marking them with suspicion and distrust even if they were not convicted of a crime.” (p. 8) Finally, they are “disparate” because a subject’s ability to weather and overcome this “broader gaze” is contingent on their access to resources and wherewithal to navigate the often opaque process of expunging a record, or optimizing a search engine to ensure that an old or inaccurate record is not publicly available.
Using subject interviews and wider collection from news sources, government reports, and legal cases, Dr. Lageson pithily but thoughtfully examines every level of the United States’ criminal records infrastructure. Sections explore law enforcement and judicial databases themselves as well as individuals impacted by a digital criminal history and their legal representatives. In perhaps the most interesting part of a fascinating study, Dr. Lageson introduces us to two “digilantes” who public criminal histories in the name of “public safety,” often demanding money in exchange for removing harmful information. The study allows an exploration of how people manage their own criminalization, how political populism fuses with digital records to produce a digilante, and how bureaucratic mismanagement can lead to the irresponsible release of thousands of records.
Digital Punishment illustrates the kaleidoscopic nature of the criminal record, which sometime behaves like a risk-management tool, other times as a commodity, still other times as police data and yet again as a police public relations tool. The criminal record canon’s diverse, opaque and sometimes frankly contradictory nature is one of its most interesting and devilish aspects.
It is difficult of write about areas where Dr. Lageson ‘falls short’ in Digital Punishment. Theorists of security studies may wish for a clearer theoretical framework. But Dr. Lageson’s thick descriptive approach is what is needed. Digital Punishment is only the second book-length scholarly treatment of criminal records in the United States, so description is sorely needed. Dr. Lageson does provide some interesting avenues for future theorizing, particularly in her treatment of stigma, where she goes so far as to suggest that the digitization of criminal records may call for a rethinking of sociological conceptualizations of stigma and its management. Care work is missing from this study, which is probably the only real gap. Scholarship dating back to at least Michel Foucault have pointed out how ‘security,’ ‘control’ and ‘care’ overlap.
Only in the last five years have scholars moved from studying the effect of a criminal record to attempting to understand its role in society more broadly. It was only about six years ago that James Jacobs’ The Eternal Criminal Record grappled with the extent to which criminal records have become implicated in almost every aspect of U.S. social life. Dr. Lageson’s book represents the most thorough analysis yet of the United States’ criminal records infrastructure.
Scholars interested in the role of databases, information technology, predictive threat management and related fields would do well to avail themselves of Dr. Lageson’s intensive and accessible research. They will not be disappointed.
Jacobs, James B. 2015. The Eternal Criminal Record, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
Lageson, Sarah Esther 2020. Digital Punishment: Privacy, Stigma and the Harms of Data Driven Criminal Justice, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Miller, Reuben Jonathan and Forrest Stuart 2017. “Carceral Citizenship: Race, Rights and Responsibility in the Era of Mass Supervision,” Theoretical Criminology