Criminal Background Checks: What You Should Know

No flawless criminal records search exists.  Why?

To reduce the risk of sexual abuse, organizations rely on criminal background checks to assess the risk of a staff member or volunteer – and they should.  BUT, a criminal background check is not the stand-alone answer.  Below is some information about criminal background checks that organizations must have to understand the weaknesses of the criminal background check system.

  1. Criminal prosecution occurs at the county or local court level for most crimes. This is particularly true for crimes related to sexual abuse of children. A crime related to child sexual abuse is filed and prosecuted at a county or local level UNLESS a federal crime is violated, such as traveling across state lines while kidnapping a child.
  1. Federal crimes are not reported in local or state databases. Federal criminal cases are filed and prosecuted in federal courts across the United States, and convictions are only accessible through a federal records search.
  1. No ‘national’ criminal commercial database exists.  Because commercial criminal background check providers cannot access the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC), they gather many sources of information into databases that may be searched by name. The NCIC system provides a computerized database for immediate access by criminal justice agencies seeking information from other criminal justice agencies about crimes and criminals.  The specific coverage of a commercial search fluctuates by provider. As a result, it is a good idea to confirm which jurisdictions your provider covers.
  1. The impact of crime may last forever, but criminal records do not.  While the FBI maintains NCIC records indefinitely, most states allow criminal searches for seven years. Some counties or local courts allow searches for up to 15 years, but most have a maximum limit of 10 or 15 years.  One benefit of a commercial search is longevity; commercial providers may choose to keep criminal information available forever.
  1. Criminal records related to minors (juveniles) are commonly sealed by the prosecuting court.  Unless the juvenile was tried as an adult, there will be ‘no offenses found’.
  1. Sex offender registries are commonly incomplete. This is because nearly 30% of convicted sex offenders fail to register when they move to a new residence, so their location is not accurate.
  1. Sex offenders are often given an opportunity to plea to a lesser, non-sexual offense. As a result, the actual actions of the offender, as reflected in the criminal record of the arresting officer, are not easily known. 
  1. Criminal background checks have become a standard of care in children’s programs, but do not serve as a stand-alone safety system. Because only 3-4% of sex offenders have a past criminal history, a criminal background check alone will not effectively protect children from sexual abuse. Instead, a comprehensive safety system, with appropriate checks, balances and accountability, must be implemented.