Institute for Excellence in Justice presents Dr. Christopher Uggen, Regents Professor and Martindale Chair in Sociology and Law at the University of Minnesota

“Criminal Records, Spillovers, and the Growing Stickiness of Public Labels”

by Tatum Kilgallon, CJRC Undergraduate Intern

Christopher Uggen

Dr. Uggen began his presentation by reiterating that contemporary criminology offers compelling evidence that the distinction between “criminal” and “non-criminal” is largely a matter of content and age. There is a complex relationship between age, crime and what he calls “fluidity.” Uggen explains that there is a complex empirical relationship between age and crime for a great range of criminal activities. When we look more closely at individual offending patterns, we observe that desistance unfolds in various patterns. As such it is problematic, “crime discourse and policy remain rooted in the notion of criminality as an immutable individual characteristic.”

This talk contrasted the fluidity in criminal behavior with the growing “stickiness” of public labels meaning that once labeled a felon or ex-inmate, it becomes extremely difficult to remove this criminal label. He provides evidence for this “stickiness” by describing from experimental studies of criminal records on work and school outcomes, demographic analysis of changes in the population bearing such records, and their spillover effects on health care and other institutions.

Expounding upon his concept of relative fluidity and stickiness, he reports that in contrast to the relative fluidity of criminal offending, criminal records are notoriously “sticky.” These criminal records tend to grow increasingly stickier with each passing year. As criminal records have become more widely accessible, millions have moved from the category of “potentially discreditable” to the category of “formally discredited.” It has now routine for employers to conduct background checks which include criminal background checks. Background checks now report information on arrests as well as convictions. As a result, applicants for housing and employment must now routinely account for misdemeanor arrests that were never prosecuted in addition to any further reported criminal behavior and convictions. Uggen reminds us that the evolution of technology and explosion of information gathering has placed this sort of “sticky” information at the fingertips of a variety of decision makers.

Uggen concluded his presentation by summarizing some classic and emerging U.S. policy interventions and briefly discussed the Obama legacy for crime and justice and prospects for the future impacting all aspects of one’s life.