What are Previous Convictions?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 19 January 2020
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Previous convictions are entries on a person's criminal record indicating that the person has been convicted of crimes before. These entries note the details associated with each conviction to provide additional context and information. If someone is falsely convicted, documentation can be filed to have these entries removed from the criminal record. Otherwise, they will remain outstanding, and information about them is available to any person or agency who looks up an individual's criminal record.

Generally, if people have previous convictions before the age of majority, their records will be sealed to make information about those convictions unavailable. In some cases the record is actively expunged, removing all traces of the convictions as though they never happened. More commonly, access to the record is simply restricted to specific circumstances, limiting who can see the previous convictions.

Information about previous convictions will note the charges, the outcome of the case, and the sentence. The name of the court and the judge will be provided so people can look up trial records if they are interested, and the prior convictions will also have notes indicating whether they were first or subsequent convictions. The criminal record will also note the level of the justice system involved, differentiating between federal crimes and crimes tried in lesser jurisdictions.


Previous convictions can sometimes be brought up during a prosecution on unrelated charges. If an attorney can argue that the convictions are relevant to the case, they may be discussed in court. For example, if someone is in court on domestic violence charges, it might be relevant for the judge and jury to be made aware of prior domestic violence convictions. In other cases, information about previous convictions is explicitly barred from court due to concerns that it might be prejudicial.

A history of criminal convictions can become a significant obstacle. Certain types of jobs exclude people with criminal backgrounds out of concern that they may be a security risk or a poor fit for the work environment. Likewise, prior convictions can be weighed in the sentencing process. Someone with a repeat criminal history is more likely to be heavily penalized, and in some cases sentencing guidelines specifically outline harsher penalties for people with previous convictions.

When applying for jobs, people are usually asked to disclose any previous convictions. This provides an opportunity for people to clarify situations if they think that there is something about a conviction that an employer needs to know.


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Post 2

My cousin was the victim of a serial rapist, and the prosecutor tried his best to introduce the defendant's previous convictions into the trial. The man had several criminal convictions on domestic violence, for one thing, and three DUI convictions. The judge decided to allow the domestic violence charges to be introduced, because they went to the state of mind of the defendant. The DUI convictions were deemed too prejudicial. The defendant wasn't on trial for any alcohol-related offenses, and portraying him as an alcoholic might unfairly influence jurors.

Of course, I and the rest of her family disagreed with that part of the judge's decision, but the prosecutor told us it's all part of standard criminal procedures. The criminal defense lawyers would have fought the introduction of those previous convictions during a criminal appeal, anyway.

Post 1

When I was in college, I was very politically active. I took part in a few protests that were on federal territory, and I was arrested several times for illegal trespassing and other minor charges related to the protest. I was convicted on those charges, but the judge suspended the sentences because there were over 200 protestors and he realized it would not be feasible to put us all in prison for non-violent crimes.

But now, twenty years later, I live in fear that a potential employer will discover those previous criminal convictions. I was a young idealist back then, and I never even had a parking ticket before those protests. I'm a very law-abiding person now, with a family and everything. I have to explain those federal convictions every time someone runs a background check on me, however.

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