Many government and private databases contain records of criminal convictions and prison sentences. A state database is the best place to begin your search in most cases.
An Overview of Information Sources
Criminal records are generally public. The first step when you want to access that information is knowing where and how to find it. There are several government databases and related information sources to check to find out a particular person's criminal sentence. These include local county records, state department of corrections databases and, for some crimes, the national crime database. In the internet age, you can conduct these searches with relative ease. Additionally, many online companies will collect this information and sell it to you.
State Department of Corrections Databases
If you know the state where the person served their sentence, a good place to begin is to search that state's criminal database. Every state has such a database, although its title and the name of the department maintaining it vary from state to state.
In Texas, for example, the Texas Department of Public Safety maintains the criminal data base. Access it by going to the department's online criminal history name search page and entering the person's name. The site explains the process and how to pay the minimal charge for the information.
Most states provide similar access to their criminal databases. To find one for a particular state, do a search for the name of the state plus the term "criminal database search." Using this search term for Washington State brings up the Washington State Patrol's Criminal Records page, where you can begin your search. Each state provides criminal conviction records that include the prisoner's name, a comprehensive list of all convictions including the name of each crime and the corresponding sentence.
The U.S. government maintains several criminal databases, including the Department of Justice's National Crime Information Center (NCIC), administered by the FBI. Of the several federal criminal record databases, the NCIC's is the most comprehensive.
The Freedom of Information Act guarantees access to this comprehensive database. Nevertheless, as a practical matter, when conducting a search for another person's criminal record and the sentences imposed, you're better off beginning with one of the state databases. NCIC's policy is to release law enforcement information about a living person without that person's consent only when no personal privacy interest is invaded or in cases where the individual's privacy interest is outweighed by a strong public interest in disclosure.
For example, if you're a law enforcement professional investigating a serious crime, strong public interest in solving the crime would likely result in the NCIC's release of the criminal's history. But if you're considering marrying someone and simply want to know if they have a criminal record, the NCIC would not ordinarily release that information.
Sheriff's departments and municipal police departments often maintain criminal history databases. Public access varies by jurisdiction. You're usually better off beginning with the state database, where you can access all convictions within the state. Check your state's department of corrections database, as well. It may provide information such as prior aliases, crimes committed and time served in prison.
Check local county records. See if the specific county publishes public information online. Use this database to obtain the most up-to-date information. Search the national crime database to obtain information about the person's time served in prison in another state.
Conduct a criminal background check. Provide the person's address and the county in which the crime was committed. This can be done online and through private companies. Many offer search services online for a fee, but it's difficult to assess the quality of the search.