where does the information come from
FIRST A NOTE ABOUT THE CRIMINAL BACKGROUND SCREENING INDUSTRY
Potential customers should know the difference between "Puffing" (exaggerated claims designed to attract business) and accurate information about the availability of public record criminal ackground screening information. The following addresses the most frequently asked questions in this regard:
- "National Databases" - Some companies make this claim because they offer multiple state databases as does CRIS. However, most people believe this to mean that all states are covered in a national database. This is not true insofar as public record databases are concerned. Only the FBI (National Crime Information Center) has a national database which is only available to the public by submitting a fingerprint card (obtainable at a local police department), paying a fee and waiting for a prolonged period of time . All companies who claim to do criminal background screening have access to the same databases. No private company can legally access the FBI database nor any other Law Enforcement Only database.
- Complete criminal databases - Though the entertainment media portrays the matter differently, even the FBI database (as we learned through 9/11 and subsequent news) is not perfect or complete. Public record databases also have their limitations which vary according to the jurisdiction from which they are obtained. Some states only provide Department of Corrections databases which include only prison inmate records. Those are usually only about 25% of a states corrections (probationers, prison inmates, parolees and transfers from other states) population. Other state corrections systems are more comprehensive including all the aforementioned post conviction offender records. Some Court databases are limited to records from one county or may include records from only one criminal court level (i.e., District Court, where misdemeanant offenses are tried or Circuit/Superior Court where some misdemeanant and all felony cases are tried). The point is, that absent a publicly accessible uniform criminal record system the only practical criminal background service is one that obtains all available databases, makes the data accessible for immediate background checks, makes such access easy for anyone to do effective background checks, is affordable for non-profit organizations and provides customer support for people without criminal justice system knowledge. CRIS meets all of these needs.
- "Due Diligence" - This is a semi-legal term used to vaguely describe a standard of effort required of an entity responsible for conducting, among other things, criminal background searches. While this does not constitute legal advice, the "Due Diligence" standard should take into consideration the thoroughness of the search , the timeliness of obtaining the results of the search and the cost of the search in relation to the number of searches the organization must do and its available financial resources.
CRIMINAL CONVICTION HISTORY INFORMATION SOURCES: Possible sources of criminal conviction history information are local police agencies, local district attorney offices, local courts, local corrections agencies, local juvenile departments, state police agencies, state court administrators, state corrections agencies, state public safety agencies, Federal Courts, Federal correctional agencies, international organizations and other highly secure sources. None of these agencies developed their information systems with the thought that it would yield information to the public. Some of these agencies, earlier than others, opened up parts of their data to the public. Some agencies release data only on an individual basis. Some limit access to their data to law enforcement or others with a necessary level of security clearance.
Local Police Agencies: It is difficult to accurately generalize about so many different local agencies because each has its own policies and degrees of professionalism and attitudes toward informing the public. However, like most public service agencies, police departments are very busy and do not make a practice of providing crime information to the public. Most law enforcement agencies operate under the old understanding that criminal justice information should only be available to criminal justice agencies.
Local District Attorney: Again, these offices are usually very busy and cannot justify spending the time to respond to public record requests. These offices tend to be even more reluctant than most to honor a public record request.
Local Courts: Local Courts are usually open to honoring public record requests. Sometimes they permit the public to use dedicated computer terminals to do the research themselves and sometimes they insist on doing the research, on their own schedule. In the past this was the only way to obtain conviction history data. Some private service companies sell this service, having established a national network of researchers who access local court records to perform searches of records on an individual. These companies usually charge between $10 and $20 per name, per county for this service. Some jurisdictions add a surcharge for each record request. Some state courts have information systems, with public access, which enables the public to check all court records in the state, or county.
Local Juvenile Departments: While it does vary from state to state, generally juvenile court records are highly confidential and unavailable to the public. In recent years several states have passes laws by which juveniles who commit certain serious crimes are treated as adults. Their record concerning those crimes would appear in that state's public record repositories (court information systems). Also, most states have a "Remand" process where juveniles who are usually between 16-18 years of age, and have exhausted the efforts of the juvenile system; are turned over to the adult system. Such remanded juveniles remanded case records would also appear in public record repositories.
State Police Agencies: Most states require that local police agencies report all criminal information to the State Police. The State Police agency is usually the source for all information to the National Crime Information Center, the primary source of FBI criminal information. State Police Information is usually considered the ideal source for criminal background searches. However, such agencies have strict guidelines for public access to criminal information, such as a signed release from the subject of the inquiry, a fingerprint card and a fee. Volume criminal background searches are usually not possible through this type of repository.
State Court Administrators: If the state has a state court information system it is usually under this type of repository and often will have public access to limited data. If such public access is available it is usually via the Internet and it is a good source for public record criminal background searches. However, some of these systems are tricky and difficult to use. Use of the system often requires enough expertise that it is easy to miss a needed record.
State Correctional Agencies: The structure of these agencies differs by state. Some include probationers (on supervision as an alternative to prison, but may include local jail sanction), prison inmates (incarcerated more than one year), parolees (supervised after release from prison) and Interstate Compact Transfer offenders (probationers, inmates or parolees transferred between the states). In these states the corrections database includes all offenders except those where the offense is minor and where the judge did not believe the offender at least needed the supervision of a probation officer. In other states only prisons are under their corrections agency's responsibility. In these states persons placed on probation are placed under individual counties authority. Depending on the corrections systems structure the offender population may range from approximately 25 - 100% of the probation, inmate, parole, Interstate Compact Transfer offenders.
State Public Safety Agencies: Some states have created a centralized agency where criminal justice data is collected from a variety of criminal justice sources including police agencies, courts and some other sources. Usually these agencies do not honor public record requests but sometimes they do. Depending on how its sources of information meets their legal requirement to provide it data, this can be a good source of public record information.
Federal Courts: Broken into districts, rather than states, there are public record access avenues to part of this data. The processes tend to be district by district and there is no consistency to each district. The processes tend to be cumbersome. Given the "white collar" nature of many of the individuals in this system, and the user unfriendliness of it, this is not considered a critical or practical source of public record criminal background data. Searches of this data can be done, usually at relatively higher costs and longer turn-around times.
Federal Correctional Agencies: To date we have not found these agencies to be forthcoming in the effort to access their public record criminal background data. Since we have not even be able to engage them in a dialogue we are not sure of the reasons for their failure to honor "Freedom of Information Act" requests.
Federal Bureau of Investigation: As mentioned above, under "State Police Agencies", their data is considered the "Mecca" of criminal background research. However, to shatter the perception, even the NCIC is not a complete database. It is a system which is voluntary. There are a few states which do not participate, therefore their criminal records do not flow into the NCIC. Different state police databases are more or less efficient (i.e., complete, timely and accurate). As noted above, access to these records is restricted, requiring finger print cards, releases from the subject of the search and a far from instantaneous turn-around time. Post 911 changes are changing the status of this data source but not to the benefit of public access.
Registered Sex Offender Records: Each state has it's own laws requiring the registration of persons convicted of sexual offenses. The data determined by the law to be accessible to the public varies from state to state. Therefore, some states release offender names and birthdates only while others release the offenders current address and others release the specific sex offense violated. Registered sex offender data, updated monthly, is obtained from various state law enforcement or judicial agencies.
International Agencies: Because these agencies involve agreements between counties, each of which having distinctly differing policies about public records, access to records through them is unlikely to impossible. Remember, citizen access to information which is collected by governments is a naturally uncomfortable concept for governments to deal with. Partly because the information could be misused and partly because to provide it uses government resources, it is an easy matter to deny such requests. "Open" or "Public Records" access is usually addressed through state and federal legislation which sounds very democratic. It goes to the heart of a democratic society, that government should operate in the sunshine and only shield information where it can justify it with a public benefit/detriment rationale.
CRIMINAL INFORMATION SERVICES, INC. (CRIS) data: Customers are understandably interested in the sources of our data. CRIS began acquiring public record criminal background data in 1993. Because of the founder's criminal justice background we began by obtaining State Correctional Agency data, in Oregon. This data captured all serious state offender records, as did Washington's and Idaho's. As we continued to expand our sources of data we added two states (Texas and Minnesota) where the source of our data was State Public Safety Agencies. This is an even more comprehensive source of data. As we continued to expand we began to add State Court Administration data. We see our long-term sources of data being more from state court administrations. Our customers have responded to our service with a strong record of loyalty. Few of our customers leave our service once they have signed up.
There is widespread misunderstanding about the sources of criminal background information in the United States. Most criminal information is not considered "Public Record" and is therefore difficult for the public to access. State Police databases, which feed into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) and the FBI, are not "Public Record" sources. Criminal background checks can be obtained through them, but it usually requires the subject's written approval, sometimes a fingerprint card, a fee and a long wait (we've have been told by one non-profit agency that they have waited nearly a year for checks through the FBI).
Although CRIS obtains its data, in bulk, and makes it instantly available to its customers, in states/counties where such data cannot be obtained manual public record searches can be done through state/county criminal courts, usually county by county. An increasing number of states offer statewide, on-line, access to such data. CRIS offers a manual search service, which does criminal court checks outside of the states where we have databases. CRIS charges around (some states add a surcharge) $15 per check (one name) per county to do this service. The turnaround on this type of check is anywhere from 24 hours to seven days, depending on how rural (requiring on-site research) the county.
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