Over the years, the World Wide Web has made an endless variety of tasks easier to perform. Paying a bill, buying a book or booking an airline ticket, to name a few, now are just a few keystrokes away. Recently, some local governments have brought that same convenience to a decidedly unpleasant undertaking: checking to see if a person is in lockup. Listing jail populations on the Web, the localities say, has made life easier not only for residents but also for employees who have to handle requests for inmate information.

In March, Dakota County, Minn., began listing its jail-inmate population on the Sheriff Department's Web page. Visitors can see a roster of who is in the county jail, which has a maximum capacity of 235. By clicking on a link, they gain access to a host of information about each inmate, including a mug shot, the charges, the arresting agency, the charging agency, the date of the person's next court appearance, bail amount and other arrest conditions. The entry for each person also includes a link to a Web site that contains Minnesota state statutes, so users can read a full description of the charges against the inmate.

The Web site is updated in real time. Minutes after a person is booked into or released from the jail, his or her name and information either appears or is removed from the site.

Don Gudmundson, sheriff of Dakota County, says that he had been considering adding the service for several years and finally decided to do it when he read about another county that was listing its jail inmates online. Dakota County's inmate page, which receives about 6,000 hits a month, was created in-house by the county's IT staff.

The benefits are numerous, Gudmundson says. Residents now have access to inmate information and can avoid calling the county. The page has reduced by roughly 50 percent the number of daily phone calls that the county receives from people seeking information about inmates. Also, the service has provided another method for those in the criminal-justice system to keep track of those arrested, he says.

Additionally, residents who observe a neighbor being carted off to jail can find out what the person has been charged with, Gudmundson says. “I've always believed that the best information is the most information,” he adds.

According to Gudmundson, some local area defense attorneys have raised concerns that the site serves to further humiliate inmates. But the sheriff dismisses those claims by noting that the information on the Web site is already available to the public. He adds that many criminal defense attorneys that he has talked to say they find the page comes in handy when they want to keep track of clients.

King County, Wash., launched a similar service in April. The county's page also was created in-house and is part of a larger countywide effort to increase information-sharing among criminal justice agencies. The site differs from Dakota County's in several ways. For instance, it does not include a mug shot of the inmate, and it maintains a searchable database of everybody that has been in the jail during the preceding year.

Toni Rezab, a senior policy analyst for King County, says the service is too new to gauge its impact on the amount of phone calls that the county receives about inmates. She says, however, that the county has received positive feedback from residents who say the site makes obtaining inmate information much easier. “This project is something that provides the public with easy access to public information on people in the jail. The public, historically, has had to come into a detention facility for inmate information. This project provides easy access and allows the public to know which facility to go to,” she says.

Exactly how many local jurisdictions have a similar Web service is unclear, although Gudmundson estimates that the number is small. Other jurisdictions that feature similar Web sites include Pierce County, Wash.; Benton County, Ark.; and San Diego County, Calif.