Short introduction: We are Wall Street Journal reporters who have been investigating an important consequence of the decades-long war on crime: In the past 20 years, our reporting found, authorities have made more than a quarter billion arrests. About 80 million individuals – nearly 1 in every 3 adults - have a criminal record on file with the FBI. The impact of this has been huge, affecting people’s ability to get jobs, housing, admission to college, and loans, to name just some of the repercussions. For many adults, their criminal records were being created in courts that often failed to provide due-process rights guaranteed by the Constitution, including the right to have a defense attorney. The failure to ensure such rights raised questions about whether people were being convicted of crimes they didn’t commit. Here is a link to our stories:


Thank you all so much for your questions. We're going to get back to our reporting. Here's a link to all of our stories in this recent series: Please continue the discussion on, and feel free to email us at [email protected] and [email protected]

Comments: 104 • Responses: 8  • Date: 

Seraph_Grymm14 karma

With such a long and complicated topic, how did you decide to go about tackling this? When you first started were you worried you might have problems presenting this in an appealing way to the public?

What do you expect the public to do as a result of all the research and work you've put into this?

fieldsg13 karma

John might respond to this a little differently but I can yes, there always is a concern that we can write a story in a way that is interesting and maybe tells people something they didn't know. We started out on this story looking at a press release that talked about some work the University of South Carolina had done on the impact of an arrest on a test group they had been following for 16 or 17 years. The natural thing to do was to ask, how many people actually have arrest records and might be facing the same problems as the people in the test group. We went to the FBI center that keeps all the information out in West Virginia and they were extremely cooperative. The number we got back on the millions of records and the fact that many of them are incomplete was a surprise for us. We both - good or bad - have at least 70 years of reporting between us and we were both surprised by the numbers so we thought others might be as well. That started things rolling. The technology and issues like background checks and the impact of rap sheets on individuals aded to it.

beernerd9 karma

What is your impression of the bail bond industry in the US?

fieldsg18 karma

I have been covering criminal justice for a long time and I did not know how the system truly worked until we reported this article. I was a bit surprised to learn that Mr. Hernandez in the first story was out of the thousands of dollars that were his portion of his bond even though everyone from the investigating officer to the judge acknowledge that he was not the suspect and should not have been arrested. It's legal and the bail company did nothing wrong but it does sound like there could be some tweaking of the process, especially in mistaken arrest cases.

lula24886 karma

Are there any possible solutions to the problem?

fieldsg8 karma

I think one solution would be to have a robust push to have the records updated. Of the nearly 80 million individuals who are listed in the master criminal records file maintained by the FBI, only 50 percent of those individuals have final dispositions on their cases. That means someone could have had a charge thrown out or dropped but still have a criminal record because the local authorities did not forward that action to the FBI. I think arrests that were mistakes also should have automatic actions - such as an automatic destruction of the criminal record that comes from the incident.

FatGingerBaby5 karma


fieldsg2 karma

It varies from state to state but my suspicion is once you were arrested you were going to have to deal with the criminal record and the potential impact that would have. Even if you had paid the ticket that would not have made the record go away.

threeballer4 karma

Hi guys!

Have you researched justice systems of other countries? And if it were up to you, would you remodel our system after another countries?


fieldsg6 karma

We did look at some of that to give us context and because we considered the idea of doing a story on what others might be doing. We concluded that might be difficult because the systems are just so different, in terms of policing, in terms of corrections, rehabilitation, everything. One of the big differences is we have 50 states and the territories that each have their own systems so it would be difficult to mandate things that all 50 should be doing. We do think there is always room for improving our system. The former U.S. Pardon Attorney, Margaret Colgate Love, talks about how other countries look at forgiving and forgetting and allowing people who have made mistakes to move on without the collateral consequences of criminal records. Some countries make it a point of locking away criminal records so they don't reappear when you are trying to get a job, housing, etc. Some also make the availability of those records difficult as well. I agree that if someone has completed their sentence and paid their debt to society that they should be able to move on. I do wonder if we should be including the consequences of a criminal record as part of the sentences now so people will know the full breadth of what can happen to them.

Snorkleboy133 karma

The discovery and reporting of this information is interesting. What do you believe is a remedy to the problem?

fieldsg1 karma

Thank you. The subject is complicated and requires looking back a little. Part of this push began because crime was horrendous in the late 1980s and early 1990s and authorities were simply trying to stem that tide. We were setting all time murder records, etc. I remember working as a police reporter during that era and seeing too many young people dead or maimed because of the violence. So we got these get tough policies that authorities hoped would slow that. And all indications are that it did. I think now is a good time to see what the consequences are going forward. Because of technology the arrests can follow you for the rest of your life so the first thing I would do is require as much as possible that records be updated. Of the nearly 80 million individuals who are listed in the master criminal records file maintained by the FBI, only 50 percent of those individuals have final dispositions on their cases. Those need to be updated so people aren't being judged on erroneous and out of date information. I think there should be a national discussion about how long criminal records should be kept if a person has done a course correction with their life. Juveniles is another area. Common sense fixes would help. Look, in the stone age when I was a student if you did something dumb at school you ended up in the principal's office, or worse, in coach's office. Your big worry was that they wouldn't call home and tell your parents you'd gotten into trouble because, well the punishments tended to intensify. There is a big difference to me between criminal activity and disciplinary activities. We need to revisit those lines now.

acctmajorprobs2 karma

What would you have done differently?

fieldsg2 karma

It would have been nice, if we had more time and space, to get more deeply into some of the personal stories we encountered. By the nature of what we are doing we were doing a survey of sorts of what's happening around the country. That doesn't always leave the time or space to delve as deeply into the individual stories we reported. We had the information to put out there but the eternal lament for a reporter is space. And for every person you see in the stories we had others who also had compelling tales but we had to leave their stories in our notebooks.

Bryceso-10 karma

How does it feel to have devoted your careers to a dead medium?

fieldsg6 karma


Seriously: the medium is changing. I don't think the concept of news and readers is anywhere near dead. Do I see myself now as a content provider as opposed to a newspaper reporter - yes. There will always be a need for people to get information. How that is provided and what device it is received on, be it a granite slab, a newspaper, television or a hologram, that need to know what's happening will continue. As long as people are curious and need information we will be okay.