One of our great romantic national myths is that no matter what you have done wrong, it’s pretty much always possible to remake yourself. But over the course of the last several decades, reinvention has become harder than ever for a huge and growing class of Americans: people with criminal records.
When I was in college (about four years ago), a friend and I played a very stupid and idiotic prank one night. It didn't cause any damage, but we scared a few people who were around. We were caught by the school Security officers, who called the police and had us arrested and charged with felony charges for terroristic threats.
Two days later we appeared in front of a judge who dropped the charges to misdemeanors for disorderly conduct. (The charges were expunged later on, after we met the conditions of 100 hours of community service and staying in college.) Appearing in court in a jumpsuit after being in jail for two days and looking out and seeing my parents, brother, sister-in-law, and coach was by far the most humiliated I've ever felt in my life.
I learned a couple weeks after getting out of jail that it had gotten a fair amount of late night news coverage in the city where it happened (and my hometown about an hour away), and had appeared in newspapers and such. And all of them mentioned that we were charged with felonies for terroristic threats, and were in jail, but no other details. Any time I go back to my hometown and see any old friends or family members, I'm constantly worried and anxious about whether they know and what they think about me. Because of this, I mostly avoid old friends and people I know from high school whenever possible.
Last year I took a weeklong solo vacation to Canada, and was stopped at the border for 4 hours. I was questioned for 2 hours and had my car searched a few times over.
If you google my name plus the name of my school, a single news story is in the top page of results. It mentions the felony charge of terroristic threats, and nothing about the charges being lessened and expunged.
A couple years ago I started going to therapy for mild depression and anxiety; my friend that I played the prank with has been getting (and continues to get) therapy for severe depression, and has been suicidal multiple times.
There's been nothing in my life that I've regretted more, and it was a foolish, dumb thing to do. That said, it's completely clear to me (and the judge, apparently) that the initial charges (and what's written about me everywhere I look online) were way overboard. But I feel like if I say this to anyone, what they'll hear is "I don't regret a thing, and I'm a crazy person." Despite this, I've managed to get a great job doing something I was way underqualified for, and to start coaching a high school team that's been one of the most fulfilling things I've ever done. And I've saved up enough money to leave in the fall to travel SE Asia for a year. So my life has been just fine. It's just the little nagging in my head everyday, wondering who knows and what they think of me, and worrying that co-workers or potential friends or lovers will "find me out." And I don't feel like I'm ever going to get away from the feeling, because the news stories on the web are always going to be there.