Last week, a New York Times article titled “Mugged by a Mugshot Online” described the dubious business of mugshot extortion. Dozens of companies acquire the post-arrest mugshots — which are public records — of individuals who may or may not have been convicted. They then post the pictures on a website and charge a fee — sometimes in the hundreds of dollars — for removal.
Moreover, even the payment of the fee doesn’t necessarily stop a website’s owner from launching a new site, reposting the same mugshot, and demanding yet another fee for removal.
This presents a significant burden to exoffenders trying to obtain gainful employment and start anew. It presents an unconscionable burden to individuals who were never convicted in the first place.
In recent years, conservatives have renewed their fundamental commitment to rehabilitation and exoffender reentry. The 2012 Republican party platform, for example, endorses “proven prisoner reentry systems to reduce recidivism and future victimization.” Furthermore, legislation allowing many otherwise qualified exoffenders to obtain occupational licenses has been signed into law by governors Rick Perry of Texas and John Kasich of Ohio. Indeed, just this week, the American Legislative Exchange Council passed a resolution advanced by the Texas Public Policy Foundation that recognizes the importance of policies “that provide discretion to enable those convicted of a certain nonviolent offense to obtain a certificate of rehabilitation after a reasonable period of exemplary conduct and demonstration of rehabilitation following their offense.”
Rich Lowry and Mitch Pearlstein have each proposed thoughtful remedies to the ‘collateral consequences’ of incarceration. Tackling the mugshot extortion racket fits in well with these conservative efforts to improve reentry. In Georgia, Governor Nathan Deal recently signed legislation requiring websites to take down a mugshot if an individual can demonstrate exoneration or the expunction of his arrest record. Governor Rick Perry recently signed a similar bill in Texas. In April, Utah governor Gary Herbert signed legislation that prohibits the release of mugshots altogether to wesbites that charge a fee for removal.
Libertarian writers Mike Riggs and Megan McArdle have suggested that reform should perhaps be even more fundamental: a rethinking of whether mugshots should be in the public record in the first place. As McArdle wrote in response to the complaints of media lobbying groups who seek to preserve their access to mugshots: “I don’t see how the public will be greatly harmed by having to rely on verbal accounts of an arrest. People who’ve made mistakes need to be able to get a fresh start. This seems a small price to pay for giving them that chance.”
— Vikrant P. Reddy is a policy analyst for the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the foundation’s Right On Crime initiative. Follow @RightOnCrime and @vpreddy on Twitter.