Sophia Eppolito, Associated Press, February 14, 2021
A handful of states in the U.S. have proposed measures that limit or ban the use of mug shots in the wake of the racial reckoning sparked by George Floyd’s killing. When police make arrests, the booking photos they take are often made public, which some legal experts say can undermine the presumption of innocence, perpetuate racial stereotypes and leave an indelible stain on a person’s life.
Criminal justice reformers say the use of mug shots perpetuates an unfair association between people of color — who historically are arrested at higher rates than white people — and crime. But some news media, which often resists limiting access to public records, have opposed the efforts, arguing that the photos can serve as a check on law enforcement and the decision to print mug shots should be left to news outlets.
In Utah, lawmakers are considering a measure that would ban police from releasing mug shots to the public or media until a person has been convicted of a crime. The proposal by GOP Rep. Keven Stratton aims to make mug shots a private record to limit their impact on people’s lives — especially for those who are falsely accused or never found guilty.
His bill, which passed the Utah House last week and will move to the Senate, would carve some exceptions for when a mug shot can be released before a conviction: if a judge orders it or if the suspect is an “imminent threat” or a wanted fugitive. Florida, Delaware and North Dakota introduced similar measures this year while Illinois passed one in 2020.
Alongside these legislative efforts, major police departments are also imposing policies against the unfettered release of mug shots and some news outlets are reevaluating their approach to covering criminal justice.
The Boston Globe announced a new racial justice initiative in January that will let subjects of past news stories apply to have their coverage updated or anonymized. Other newsrooms have created similar programs, including one at The Cleveland Plain Dealer that kicked off in 2019.
Meanwhile, in July, San Francisco’s police department announced it would stop releasing the mug shots of people who have been arrested unless they pose a threat to the public, as part of an effort to stop perpetuating racial stereotypes. Large cities like Los Angeles and New York already have policies in place against releasing the photos, but make exceptions.
In 2019, Utah passed a law that restricted websites that post the photos before a person is convicted of a crime and make people pay a fee to have their photo removed.