Navigating the Criminal Records Landscape

Navigating the Criminal Records Landscape

A staggering 73.5 million people in the U.S. have a criminal record, according to the Department of Justice. That’s one in every three adults.

It should come as no surprise, then, that when you’re ordering background checks on your applicants and employees, you are likely to come across someone with a criminal history of some sort on their record. Whether or not the nature or extent of the crime warrants a no-hire decision on your part depends on many factors. But first it’s important to understand the various types of criminal records that exist and which to request when hiring for a given role in your organization.

In this blog, we give a brief overview of the most common types of criminal records that are available, where the records come from, what information they do and don’t contain, and how you might use the resulting information in your hiring decisions.

For a visual primer on this topic, we invite you to check out our infographic: The What’s What of Criminal Records.

Types of Criminal Records

Criminal records are available at every level of government, including local/county, state, and federal jurisdictions.

Federal Criminal Records

Federal crimes generally fall under the purview of federal entities: think FDIC, ICE, DEA, IRS or FBI.  Violations include embezzlement, drug trafficking, tax violations, or sex crimes. Federal criminal records are pulled from the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) Case Locator or at the Clerk’s office where the case was filed. PACER is a national index for U.S. district, bankruptcy, and appellate courts containing over 500 million documents.

Employers request federal records to meet regulatory requirements or for certain governmental positions. In addition, positions of trust, such as financial services personnel, executive-level hires, or people handling sensitive data are often included in this type of background check.

Federal criminal records will not be uncovered during a traditional criminal background check. You must request them separately if you want to check an individual’s federal criminal history.

National Criminal Database

National criminal records are drawn from a national database of thousands of U.S. counties that house millions of criminal records. They can be helpful in revealing criminal activity that occurred in one or more jurisdictions, for example, multi-state sex offenders. However, not every county reports into the database, and national records are often incomplete.

A database search will reveal county criminal records, data from the Department of Corrections (DOC) or Administration of the Court (AOC), as well as state-specific information. U.S. and international debarment, sanctions, and watch list data may also be included.

National records data should never be used in isolation, they are helpful as a reference point, or for conducting a deeper local records search. 

State Criminal Records

You’ll find these records in searchable state law enforcement or AOC databases. They contain some or all records of law enforcement activity related to a given subject, reported by the participating jurisdictions. Criminal activity runs the gamut from burglary to assault and battery. But not all counties transmit information into the state, so reported data will vary accordingly.

State searches are helpful in pulling data from a candidate’s former state(s). They are often combined with local criminal records searches to verify potential criminal activity where the candidate has lived.

County/Local Criminal Records

You’ll find felony convictions, misdemeanors, bench warrants, and other local-level court actions in a typical local records search. Records are pulled from local county courthouses. They provide the most detailed, accurate information about an individual’s criminal background, including sentencing and disposition records.

Local searches are used to provide the most complete profile of a candidate. Keep in mind that a county search will only reveal crimes committed in the county searched, which means you could miss crimes that were committed in other jurisdictions.

Civil Records

Civil court cases are different from criminal court cases. They deal with disputes between private parties and can be about property, housing, debts, marriage and children, or injuries. As a result, you’ll find information about bankruptcies, tax liens, and county and federal civil judgments. Records data comes from county courts and the U.S. District courts.

Civil records searches are less common in employee background checks but can be highly useful in positions of extreme trust.

Navigating the Landscape

Even armed with these definitions, understanding which criminal records are available through consumer reports and knowing how to use them can still be confusing. For example, there is a decided difference between national and federal criminal records searches. Plus, different jurisdictions have different guidelines for what information is collected, how it can be accessed, and how long it will remain on file. To top it off, not all local jurisdictions report data to state and national databases.

Despite these challenges, criminal background checks remain one of the most effective ways to screen candidates, particularly when they have lived or worked in multiple places.

About Michael Gaul

Michael is a results-oriented marketing executive with over two decades of experience in employment screening, physical security, and business process management. Michael has deep experience in human capital risk management and a passion for educating business leaders and HR professionals on strategies that tangibly protect their interests. Michael serves on the Board of the Secure Cash and Transport Association (SCTA) and is a member of the Professional Background Screening Association (PBSA), and the American Society of Industrial Security (ASIS).
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