Jail Records And Inmate Databases: How To search for them and Knowing The Differences Between Them


Disclaimer: The below is solely intended for informational purposes and in no way constitutes legal advice or specific recommendations.

Knowing the difference between jail and prison

In order to find the records you are seeking, it may be important to understand some key differences between “jail” and “prison”. Each of these facilities serve different purposes and are generally operated by rather different governing bodies. Accordingly, jail records and prison records may not necessarily be found in the selfsame location. Here are a few key differences between jail and prison:

  • Jails are the facilities used for short-term (a few hours to a few days) holding (also known as “detention”) of inmates and non-inmates in the time period immediately following arrest. Prisons, by contrast, are the designated places for long-term criminal inmate housing after judicial sentencing.
  • So-called “Jail house” inmates may be awaiting sentencing, or they may be individuals who are serving shorter sentences for misdemeanor crimes, and/or convicts who are waiting to be transferred to a larger prison.
  • Prisons house those individuals typically convicted of felonies, whose sentence is one year or longer.
  • Jails are most often operated by local governments and the county sheriff's office, whereas prisons are run by states or the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Jail records, prison records, and arrest records all pertain to different circumstances relating to the various chapters that constitute an individual's run-in with the law, and are thus maintained by different governing bodies.

What are jail records, and are they public?

Typically, jail records provide information concerning individuals who have spent time in some variety of jail. These are public records that are maintained by county, city, and state governments, and are generally free to access (in some format anyway) either online, by mail, in person, over the phone, or even via fax. Often, even if details pertaining to a jailed individual may not be available online, there may still be a name search option. Lists of inmates, their full names, and their booking date may also be available. Even if a jurisdiction does not provide this database, there will generally be a searchable database of sexual offenders and predators. In fact, many sex offender registry searches are available online even where inmate records are not.

There may be multiple ways to access jail records online: public record repositories and local law enforcement facilities may provide information with a simple name search (first and last names may be necessary to narrow down search results). For a physical copy of an individual's jail record, you may need to contact the jurisdiction's local government agency handling such matters. However, more in-depth information may be obtained by paying for criminal background checks. This is often an option that employers, property managers and other agencies choose to fit their needs, however, the vendors that are permitted by law to provide such information in said contexts (e.g., job applicants, prospective tenants and candidates for admission) are highly circumscribed by law and thus only specific parties may provide such. For example, as illustrated in our Do's and Don'ts, our users are strictly prohibited from using our site for such purposes in such contexts and this violates the law.

Information provided by jail records

Searching jail records may provide additional details about a person's identity or even the reason why they were jailed, provided the county in which they were jailed is able to and inclined to provide such details. Arrests, felonies, misdemeanors, DUIs,and sex crimes are among the the types of offenses that may be cited in jail records. Depending on the jurisdiction, some of the information you may be able to find in jail records could include: first and last name, case number, facility of incarceration, discharge date, next court date, the charge, incarceration date, disposition, projected release date, warrants, year of birth, sex, race, height, weight, hair and eye color, and place of birth.

Some counties, however, may opt to withhold or otherwise not display information concerning inmates released more than 30 days subsequent to the applicable date of arrest. Check with the applicable county sheriff's office for the location in which the incarceration or detention took place for more information.

What jail records mean for you, and how they can be used

Because jail records are easily accessible, anyone with knowledge of your first and last name may be able to access them, depending on the county that maintains such information. These records may also appear in background checks and criminal history reports conducted on you. Because they may be so easily accessible, those who search your name in these databases may be able to uncover details about your past. And if you have been to jail, you may have to face some uncomfortable questions.

How jail records can inform you about a person

Jail records may inform you about a person's past, and the information provided by these reports may provide data that could help you choose the most appropriate course of action regarding that individual in the short term. If you are searching for a lost friend, family member, or acquaintance, you may find that what you uncover may help you piece together certain puzzle pieces of their past. If you are checking up on someone you have recently come into contact with, you may be inclined to decide to what degree you are comfortable interacting with them in the future. Bear in mind, however, that none of these details should ever be considered in a vacuum; there is always the risk of search results ascribed to similarly named individuals, data glitches and false positives, just as everyone has a story, the full details of which you likely lack, such that course of conduct conclusions are quite possibly premature. These are just a few examples of how some use jail records in a people search, but, as always, the information you discover may simply lead to more questions — in which case, you may want to perform a greater, broader or more thorough search, such as a more comprehensive background check or a larger criminal history search that might include felony convictions and other details.

What will you find out?