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Dollars For Data

The goal of the legislation was lofty: to help people who have been exonerated clear their criminal records, quickly and completely. The unexpected result? News organizations must pay hundreds of dollars in monthly fees to keep a copy of the state’s criminal records database.

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The goal of the legislation was lofty: to help people who have been exonerated clear their criminal records, quickly and completely. The unexpected result? News organizations must pay hundreds of dollars in monthly fees to keep a copy of the state’s criminal records database.

Department of Public Safety officials say bills passed in the last few legislative sessions give them the green light to make anyone with a copy of the state’s criminal records database pay expunction fees. But the monthly costs have become unpredictable and prohibitively expensive for many news organizations.

State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, says the records-clearing legislation he championed was intended to keep commercial information clearinghouses in line, not to allow the state to charge news organizations for access to criminal records. “We never, ever contemplated that these fees would be charged to the media,” West says. “Obviously we need to take a look at this during the next session to see what we can do to find a happy medium.”

For years, wrongfully convicted Texans have argued that it’s too difficult to clear their names, not just in official state records but in the often outdated records maintained by commercial information services. In response, state legislators made expunction notifications automatic and paperless and held anyone maintaining the data criminally liable for updating it.

A bill passed in 2007, for instance, ordered DPS to notify these record-holders about any expunctions or pardons and authorized them to recoup “an amount sufficient to recover costs incurred by the department.” The department says it takes an employee about 15 minutes — $3 of agency time — to process each expunction or pardon notification. In October, there were 2,157, totaling more than $6,400.

The state does not pay for it, however. DPS divides the cost by the number of organizations or news outlets that request the data. In October, the agency billed 15 organizations roughly $430 each.

This cost will likely grow as news organizations stop requesting the data because they can’t afford it. A few months ago, 18 organizations were maintaining criminal records databases. The Texas Tribune, which regularly publishes government databases, requested a copy of the criminal records database in November but decided not to purchase it after learning the price tag.

Laura Prather, a lawyer and president of the board of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, says she has heard from several media outlets that have stopped using the criminal records database as a reporting tool because they cannot afford the monthly fees. This is worrisome, she says, because news organizations have used those records to break big stories in recent years — including exposing the criminal records of state employees working in juvenile prisons and homes for the disabled.

Public safety officials say they are not cutting off access, they are just following the law. Charlene Cain, who works in the agency’s crime records division, says state agencies, school districts and day care operators still have full access to the records when they are making hiring decisions.

Prather sees it another way. “DPS has figured out a way to make this into a moneymaking endeavor,” she says. “This is an unintended consequence of legislation that is cutting off access to vital information.”

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