Sex Offender Registries
January 4, 2008
As a Consumer Reporting Agency, EmployeeScreen IQ gathers information from many public record sources. Statewide Sex Offender Registries are somewhat unique among public record sources, in that access to a significant amount of personal information on sex offenders is widely available for free and with few or no questions asked. This seems to run against the steady current of increasing legislation designed to safeguard personal information against identity theft and other invasions of personal privacy. Additionally, many employers don’t perceive a need to check a sex offender registry if they are already conducting a county-level criminal record search. Read on to understand why and when a check of the sex offender registry is appropriate for your applicants.
Unparalleled availability of personal information
Virtually every state makes sex offender information available through the internet without asking so much as a password, reason for the information, or name of the requestor. Type in a name to search, and you can find out if that individual is a registered sex offender. Even better, type an address or zip code, and you can bring up all sex offenders living within the neighborhood, zip code, city, county, or state. Typically you’ll see the individual’s name, age, date of birth, ethnicity and address, the crime they were convicted of, a physical description including known tattoos and piercings, and even a photograph of the individual. This is an indispensable tool for parents, families, and others who want to keep track of this information in their local neighborhood.
By contrast, other public record sources generally don’t make such detailed information available to the public. County courthouses that provide criminal searches via public access offices or the internet require that you provide the name and correct spelling for each individual you are checking. Search results in metropolitan areas will typically deliver a long list of ‘hits’ for even marginally common names, which may or may not be associated with your particular candidate. Positively associating a criminal record with your candidate requires use of additional identifiers, which are not always readily available through public access points. An advantage of using a reputable Consumer Reporting Agency is access to a nationwide network of experienced professional court researchers who know how to perform this validation and when additional research is warranted.
What makes Sex Offender Registries unique?
All states have enacted a “Megan’s Law,” requiring convicted sex offenders to register with local law enforcement for the statewide database. While few would argue the rights of sex offenders in relation to their crimes, privacy advocates and the ACLU fought hard against making this personal information so easily accessible to the general public. But the Supreme Court ultimately ruled (in reversing Connecticut Dept. of Public Safety vs. Doe, 01-1231, March 5, 2003) that because convicted sex offenders pose a unique threat to local communities (primarily juveniles as well as the elderly or disabled), and because they are “much more likely than any other type of offender to be re-arrested for a new rape or sex assault,” that the community’s right to awareness of that local threat outweighs the offender’s right to privacy of her/his personal information.
The issue has recently been expanded as several communities across the country have enacted local legislation barring sex offenders from living within their boundaries. This has elicited a new wave of as yet unresolved debate.
Recent developing trend: Methamphetamine Registries
Another related development is registries enacted in a handful of states and planned in several others to track individuals convicted of manufacturing and selling methamphetamine. Because it is manufactured from household items, meth labs have sprung up in homes and neighborhoods across the country. The meth manufacturing process produces toxic waste, so the theory is that anyone in the neighborhood is a potential victim of a meth lab, not just the individuals involved in making, selling, or using the drug. Therefore, while this debate is ongoing, the implication is that meth offenders, like sex offenders, pose a unique threat to communities, and the general public has a right to awareness of their whereabouts.
Implications for employment screening
One of the most frequent questions we’re asked is “if someone is a sex offender, wouldn’t we find that in a county criminal record search?” The sex offender registry seems redundant in this respect. The answer is usually yes. However, depending on the severity or habitual nature of the criminal act(s), and how much time has passed, there are legitimate reasons you would find these records through one resource and not the other. The most serious offenders are required to register for life including when they move to another state. If the conviction occurred over seven years ago, there is no guarantee it will be reported by the county, but they will be found in the sex offender registry. Conversely, prosecution of a criminal case in the county court system can take months or years, and longer for the conviction to make its way into the state sex offender database. In this case, the county criminal search will show each stage of the record throughout the adjudication process (though it should be cautioned that an employment decision should not be based solely on an arrest record). The case will not appear in the state sex offender registry until a final conviction has been rendered plus processing time for the entry into the registry database.
When is it appropriate to run one or the other, or both?
The next question is then “how do we know when to run a county criminal search, the sex offender registry, or both?” The answer is logical:
Industry best practices dictate a seven year county criminal history be run on all employees. Each county jurisdiction of residence, including where the individual has worked or attended school over the past seven years should be checked for criminal history, and any alias names used by the individual should be checked in these areas as well.
Building from this foundation, ANY individual that will be in contact with children, the elderly, the disabled, or that will have access to residences, hotel rooms, or other living spaces is strongly recommended to be run through the sex offender registry check in addition to the 7 year county criminal history. While sex offenders are mandated to re-register every time they move, a known drawback of sex offender registries is that some offenders move out of state and fail to register with authorities at their new locale. Therefore a comprehensive check for sex offenders should include each state’s registry corresponding with any state’s the applicant has lived, worked, or attended school over the past seven years.
If it’s so easy, why use a Consumer Reporting Agency?
Sex offender registries are designed to make detailed information about potential threats to safety in the community widely available to local residents. Ease of access to these information resources shouldn’t be mistaken by employers for perfect information. Using a reputable CRA with sufficient oversight and compliance procedures in place will ensure you do not attribute a record to the wrong individual with the same or similar name. It will ensure your applicants have FCRA-mandated recourse and dispute resolution procedures in place if they believe information has been reported in error. For you, the employer, it will ensure reasonable scope of the criminal record search so that it is extensive enough to cover all areas the individual has lived, worked, or attended school going back seven years.
Essentially, any concerns over violation of privacy are eliminated when using a reputable Consumer Reporting Agency (CRA) for employment screening. The candidate or employee has provided signature consent and her/his own personal identifiers, and both the Consumer Reporting Agency and its end-user client are bound by the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) to keep the information confidential and protect the individual’s privacy in all respects regarding the information in the consumer report. Use of a reputable CRA will maximize the safety of your customers and employees, and minimize your risk of a negligent hiring lawsuit.
Rob Thomson is Communications Manager and Senior Account Executive for Cleveland-based EmployeeScreen IQ, a best practices provider of pre-employment screening services throughout the U.S. and worldwide. Rob can be reached at (800) 235-3954 ext. 438 or email@example.com.
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