The Digital Scarlet Letter: The Effect of Online Criminal Records on Crime

39 Pages Posted: 7 Oct 2011 Last revised: 5 Dec 2018

Date Written: November 1, 2018


How does public access to criminal records affect crime? Economic theory suggests that expanding access to criminal information may increase the cost of crime to potential criminals by endangering their future work prospects and thus act as a deterrent. However, increased provision of information could also obstruct ex-convicts from finding legal employment and lead to higher recidivism rates. I exploit the state and time variation in the introduction of state-maintained online criminal databases – which represent a sharp drop in the cost and effort of gaining criminal background information on another person – to empirically investigate the trade-off between deterrence and recidivism. I find that online criminal records lead to a small net reduction in property crime rates, but also a marked increase of approximately 11 percent in recidivism among ex-offenders.

Keywords: crime, recidivism, criminal records

JEL Classification: K14, K4, H4

Suggested Citation

Luca, Dara Lee, The Digital Scarlet Letter: The Effect of Online Criminal Records on Crime (November 1, 2018). Available at SSRN: or

Dara Lee Luca (Contact Author)

Mathematica Policy Research ( email )

P.O. Box 2393
Princeton, NJ 08543-2393
United States

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