One big misconception that I hear frequently is that a search of inmate records is the same thing as conducting a criminal record search. They are not the same thing. Not even remotely close.

In most states, you can search for current or former inmates who have served in state penitentiaries. (Note: County and local inmates are typically not included.) The federal government also has a tool to search federal inmate records for people who are currently serving federal prison time or individuals who have served prison time in the past.

While this can be a quick and easy tool to determine if someone has served jail time, just because a person does not appear on the inmate list does not mean that the person has not been charged or even convicted of a crime.

According to the Department of Justice, there were 2.3 million prisoners in jail as of 2010. In contrast, there were 100 million criminal cases filed in state courts in 2009 and 78,000 criminal cases filed in federal court in 2010.

Some simple math tells you that only a small fraction of people who were charged with criminal offenses end up serving jail time.

Some of the reasons for the disparity are simple. Most people don’t serve jail time for many criminal offenses. Some people may have been charged (and even convicted of crimes) but never served jail time. Others simply were acquitted, not sentenced to jail, served probation or are no longer on the inmate locator website (for example, New York removes nonviolent offenders from its website after five years).

So the next time you hear that an inmate search is the equivalent of a criminal record search, be very skeptical.

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