Cuomo’s ‘criminal record’ claim depends on how that’s defined

Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants businesses in New York state to hire more applicants with a criminal record. They become loyal employees and bring tax benefits, he said. And, they make up a huge pool of prospective employees.

People with a criminal record number too many for employers to pass over because of unsubstantiated fears of workplace violence, theft or incompetence, he said.

But is the number as high as he said? Does one in every three adults have a criminal record?

The FBI considers anyone who has been arrested on a felony charge to have a criminal record, even if the arrest did not lead to a conviction. The FBI only counts those with a misdemeanor if a state agency asks the bureau to keep it on file.

So by the FBI’s standard, 73.5 million people in the United States had a criminal record as of June 30.

The Census Bureau lists the adult population in the United States at 249.4 million. That means the FBI considers about 29.5 percent of adults to have a criminal record.

Cuomo did not make any distinction between convictions and arrests in his article. He just used the term ‘criminal record’ without defining it.

The meaning of “criminal record” can be ambiguous. A search on the internet will tell you a criminal record is a history of someone’s convictions, a step beyond the FBI’s definition.

“When I teach my classes and I talk to my students about this, I tell them the term criminal record is almost useless,” said Robert Brame, a professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of South Carolina.

“It could mean so many different things,” Brame said. “Are you talking about conviction record, arrest record, juvenile record?”

In most cases, arrests shouldn’t show up on pre-employment checks, said Michelle Rodriguez, a senior staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project.

“But there’s still mistakes that happen in background check reports so there is a possibility that something could show up,” Rodriguez said.

There is no federal data on the number of people with a criminal conviction living in the U.S.

The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics does have an estimate for how many people were under correctional supervision in 2015. The bureau reported 6.7 million adults either incarcerated or on parole or probation. That’s close to three out of every 100 adults.

Our ruling

Cuomo said “70 million Americans have a criminal record — that’s one in three adults.”

By the FBI definition, that is correct. But the term ‘criminal record’ is ambiguous, and the FBI definition is different from the common-sense definition. His claim may have been interpreted by some to mean one-third of adults have a criminal conviction. That’s not true.

His statement leaves out how he defines criminal record, an important detail. We rate it Half True.

“70 million Americans have a criminal record — that’s one in three adults.”

— New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday, July 18th, 2017 in an article on LinkedIn