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Gaps Within Statewide Criminal Databases Could Leave Holes In Your Background Check Program

 

Statewide Criminal DatabaseMany states mandate the use of state maintained criminal record databases to fulfill state laws for screening applicants for positions within healthcare, education, daycare, or positions that require direct care for the elderly, mentally or physically challenged.   Many states also require the use of such databases for employees within the financial and security industries, or to comply with laws for screening state employees.  The concern is the integrity of such criminal data being used for high risk and safety sensitive positions, where individuals could pose safety risks to others or potential liability to employers.  Understand that such information is critical as part of the criminal background check process; however, certainly not comprehensive enough or accurate enough to be the sole source of criminal information. 

A recent audit of the Texas Department of Public Safety Computerized Criminal History System revealed critical information gaps in the state’s criminal information database.  The audit found that courts failed to submit state disposition records for one in four arrests in 2009.  Texas state law requires that information is submitted to the Department of Public Safety (DPS) within 30 days; however, proper enforcement lacks the ability for the DPS to penalize offices that don’t follow the law.  Courts revealed that information was not reported due to computer problems, lack of arrest or incident numbers, or state identification numbers, among others.  Texas is not alone in their battle for criminal data integrity as many U.S. states and territories struggle with this never-ending battle of providing accurate and timely information. 

Information Is Only As Good As The Weakest Link
In today’s tight economy, shrinking state, county and local budgets continue to cut into the integrity of state maintained databases.  With the lack of staff to enter data or upload critical information into state maintained criminal repositories, lag time and also errors in such information will continue to grow.  Cuts in police and court administrative staff create a huge workload and concerns of completing primary day to day tasks at-hand, while leaving functions like updating the state database as secondary.  Budget cuts also lead to cuts in critical computer equipment needed to maintain criminal information efficiently and effectively.  Each reporting criminal court or jurisdiction is also set up and managed independently by court administrators or appointed officials, which adds another layer of inconsistency throughout the data gathering and reporting process.   These inconsistencies create critical holes in criminal information needed to assess the integrity and suitability of individuals for any position. 

Here are a few questions that must be asked when utilizing a statewide criminal database as a primary or sole source of information when conducting a criminal background check: 

  • Do all courts or jurisdictions within the state report information to the database?
  • Do states require the reporting of both felony and misdemeanor criminal information for a comprehensive search?
  • Is there a legal requirement within the state that mandates an agency/court and court personnel to follow such laws for proper information reporting?  Is there an audit and enforcement requirement with stiff penalties for non-compliance?
  • What is the lag time in reporting such information to the database?
  • Are proper identifiers such as subject’s complete name, DOB, address, or other physical identifiers attached to the record for proper identification?
  • Is there an error or data quality mechanism put into place to identify missing information or records that require additional information or disposition?
  • How do states link arrest and conviction information for proper data integrity and accuracy?
  • What is the method used to report such information to the database such as manual data-entry or electronic up-load capabilities? 

U.S. Department of Justice Reports Key Findings In State Criminal Databases
In October of 2009, The United States Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) released its annual report titled "Survey of State Criminal History Information Systems, 2008".  The report focuses on the status of several state and U.S. territory criminal history files, repository practices, and timeliness of reporting information, among other statistics.  The report is based on surveys conducted by administrators of state and territory criminal history record repositories in March thru June of 2009 and includes the results of 56 jurisdictions.  The report provides a snap-shot as of December 31, 2008.  The BJS continues to administer assistance programs dedicated to improving criminal history information across the U.S. 

The following are a few key findings from the most recent report published by the BJS: 

  • 48 States, the District of Columbia, and Guam reported the total number of persons in their criminal history files as 92,329,600.
  • 23 States and Guam have fully automated criminal history files.
  • 16 States, representing 25% of the individual offenders in the Nation’s criminal history records, reported that 80% or more arrests within the past 5 years in the criminal history database have final dispositions recorded.
  • 21 States, representing 37% of the individual offenders in the Nation’s criminal history records, reported that 70% or more arrests within the past 5 years in the criminal history database have final dispositions recorded.
  • A total of 27 States, representing 54% of the individual offenders in the Nation’s criminal history records, reported that 60% or more arrests within the past 5 years in the criminal history database have final dispositions recorded.
  • 13 states and Guam reported that 90% or more felony charges have a final disposition recorded in the criminal history database. 17 States and Guam reported that 80% or more felony charges have a final disposition recorded in the criminal history database.
  • 23 States, Guam, and the Virgin Islands reported a backlog of entering court disposition data into the criminal history database.
  • 1.6 million unprocessed or partially processed court disposition forms are reported by 20 States, ranging from 52 in Illinois to 724,541 in Utah.
  • Based on responses from 34 jurisdictions, the length of time between occurrence of the final felony court disposition and its receipt by the repository ranges from 1 hour or less in New Jersey and New York to 510 days in Kansas.
  • Based on responses from 38 jurisdictions, the number of days between the receipt of a final felony court disposition and its entry into the criminal history database ranges from less than 1 day in Connecticut, Hawaii, Indiana, New Jersey, New York, and Utah to 854 days in Kansas. 

Best Practices For Using Statewide Criminal Information
Although a few states do a better job than others in maintaining their state’s criminal database, employers should not rely on such information as their sole source of criminal data, if possible.  Comprehensive criminal research should be conducted from several sources and county, local and even national criminal database information should not be overlooked.  The original reporting jurisdiction/court provides the most current and reliable information available.  Concentrating research efforts into areas where an applicant has lived, worked or even attended school provides a more concentrated and accurate search.  Research within a local court will uncover all levels of reported misdemeanors and felonies.  This criminal data may not be available or even included within the state database, depending on the criminal charge level or timeliness of reporting.  A statewide search should be used as a supplemental search to cast a wider net across the state.  In addition, statewide criminal information should be properly vetted to include final case disposition/outcome before being considered as accurate and up-to-date.  A careful review of proper subject identifiers should also be scrutinized to be sure you have the right subject’s information.

Employment Background Investigations works with employers across the nation and around the world to provide a full range of comprehensive and legally compliant criminal background check solutions to help reduce the risks and liability of a bad hire.  We can help design a program that is comprehensive, compliant, and timely by using a combination of county, state, federal and national electronic database resources for a complete criminal background check solution.

EBI is committed to providing employers with valuable education and resources on changing legislation and cutting-edge and compliant solutions to meet federal, state, local and international legal requirements.  All content provided by EBI is published for the convenience of its readers and should never be deemed as legal guidance or advice.  Always consult your legal counsel for specific advice on local laws and industry regulations.

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