National Background Checks: What’s in a Database?

Angela Preston

Employment Background Checks National Criminal Database

The debate about national background checks has been in the headlines every day since the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The focus has been on background checks for gun purchases, but some of the same points that have been made in the context of guns carry over into our world—employment screening.  One of the biggest hiring concerns for any employer is an applicant’s criminal history, thus almost every background check includes a criminal component.  The most frequent questions we field from both clients and the public have to do with “national” background checks and criminal databases. Why is this topic so confusing? Well, it’s complicated.

The National Association of Background Screeners (NAPBS) recently published a paper to shine some light on the subject. The bottom line is this: there is no single source for a national criminal check. The FBI database is incomplete. For a record to be located and housed with the FBI’s Interstate Identification System (also known as “III”) it must have a fingerprint associated with it. But unfortunately, fingerprints aren’t associated with all criminal records indexed at county or state repositories. To complicate matters, while all states currently participate in submitting some records to the III, criminal record reporting is extremely irregular across counties and states. We know that not all state criminal records or fingerprints meet the FBI’s standards for inclusion in the III, and not all state records are submitted to the FBI.

To make matters worse, even if records are included, they might not tell the true story. In a June 2006 report from the Attorney General, titled “The Attorney General’s Report on Criminal History Background Checks,” it was noted that only 50 percent of III arrest records contained final dispositions. And with any database, no matter how aggressively updated, there are inherent lags in updates. According to data from the 2005 study, “A Review and Evaluation of the NCIC,” the average number of days for repositories to receive and process information: Arrest Information = 24 days, Court Disposition = 46 days, Prison Admission = 31 Days.

We recommend that national criminal databases—whether derived from private or public sources, be verified at the source.  A combined approach allows for the broadest breadth of sources without compromising accuracy.

Don’t just take my word for it. Here is what other major news outlets are reporting on national background checks:

The Wall Street Journal

“The National Instant Criminal Background Check System…doesn’t include millions of people legally barred from owning guns, researchers and advocates say. Fourteen states list fewer than five people flagged for mental-health issues. Researchers also found major gaps in filing records of known drug offenders, who are temporarily prohibited from buying firearms.”

“Many states are still failing to do the bare minimum,” said Mark Glaze, director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which studied the matter in a 2011 report. “We know they have hundreds of thousands of records sitting in state agencies.”

(Source: “Spotty Records Weaken Background Checks” reported online January 15, 2013)

The Huffington Post

“The database is incomplete because many states have not provided federal authorities with comprehensive records of people involuntarily committed or otherwise ruled mentally ill. Records are also spotty for several other categories of prohibited buyers, including those who have tested positive for illegal drugs or have a history of domestic violence.”

“Despite improvements in recent years, state governments are failing to submit records to the Federal Bureau of Investigations of people with mental illnesses who have been institutionalized or otherwise deemed by authorities to be dangerous to themselves or others, The New York Times reported Friday. The Times cited a 2011 study by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a coalition of more than 700 city officials that is co-chaired by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I), an outspoken proponent of stricter gun control laws.”

(Source: “FBI Gun Background Check Database Missing Millions of Records on Mentally Ill” reported online December 21, 2012)

The New York Times

“The database is incomplete because many states have not provided federal authorities with comprehensive records of people involuntarily committed or otherwise ruled mentally ill. Records are also spotty for several other categories of prohibited buyers, including those who have tested positive for illegal drugs or have a history of domestic violence.”

(Source: “Gaps in F.B.I. Data Undercut Background Checks for Guns” published online December 20, 2012)

CNN

Universal background check: What does it mean?

“(H)uge gaps” exist in the database, which is called the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS.” Lindsay Nichols, an attorney with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

(Source: “’Universal Background Check:’ What Does it Mean?” reported online January 14, 2013 and updated January 28, 2013)

McClatchy

“President Barack Obama acknowledged problems with the system in January when he unveiled a series of legislative recommendations and executive actions to curb gun violence.

He instructed federal agencies to submit information, write regulations to lift legal barriers that prevent states from reporting data and increase incentives for states to share information.”

“But the reporting still lags. Besides the lack of mental health data from states and the federal government, 44 states had sent fewer than 10 drug abuse records each as of October 2011, the mayors’ report said. That’s even though a single failed drug test, drug-related arrest or drug use admission might disqualify a person from buying a gun. Only three federal agencies have submitted drug use information.”

(Source: “Gun Background-Check Database Missing Vital Information” reported online March 13, 2013)

Mason Globe Gazette

“The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) is only as good as the information fed into the system, according to local and state officials.”

“One of the issues it has faced, especially with today’s technology, is that it is just a data base and it is not a psychological or psychiatric assessment tool. And so a background check is only as good as the data that it houses.” said Ross Loder, bureau chief for the program services bureau of the Iowa Department of Public Safety.

“NICS may also be incomplete because some states do not enter all criminal convictions.”

(Source: Background Checks Reliable but Limited” reported online March 16, 2013)

Azfamily.com

“The Arizona Criminal Justice Commission released a nearly 90-page study Thursday that examined the state’s reporting system. A task force found inefficiencies and missing information from the database. As a result, a number of felons, domestic violence offenders and mentally ill may not have been entered in the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System used by gun dealers, as well as law enforcement and employers.”

Paper “disposition reports” filled out by the various law-enforcement agencies are submitted to the Department of Public Safety by mail. DPS then submits them to the state, which then submits them to the national database. However, the lag time could be days, weeks or months, according to the task force, which also found large amounts of missing information on criminal records. “Statewide, Arizona is missing disposition information on 33.6 percent of felony arrest counts and 25.1 percent of misdemeanor domestic violence arrest counts,” according to the report, titled ‘Arizona NICS Records Improvement Plan.’

(Source: “AZ Study Finds Serious Lapses in Criminal Background Check System” reported online March 22, 2013)

Thanks to NAPBS for source material in this post.








Angela Preston
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Angela Preston

Vice President of Compliance & General Counsel at EmployeeScreenIQ
Angela Preston has more than 20 years as a licensed attorney and over 10 years in the background screening area. She serves on the Board of Directors of the National Association of Professional Background Screeners (NAPBS), is a member of the NAPBS Background Screening Credentialing Council (BSCC), and is actively involved in the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and ASIS International. Angela is also a member of the Ohio State and Columbus Bar Associations. Angela has direct oversight and management of compliance programs, and will provide guidance in complex legal matters including state and federal legislation, EEO law, client education, adjudication, pre/adverse action process, NAPBS Accreditation and client and vendor contract management.
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