The Inaccuracy of Criminal Background Checks

The most recent episode of HBO's Last Week Tonight with John Oliver included a segment on credit reports and background checks, highlighting some of the most pressing challenges facing those industries today. The central thesis of the segment revolves around a single phrase that Oliver mentions about nine minutes in: "If you are going to use a criminal background check to make decisions, at the very least, they should be accurate. And frequently, they are not."

Oliver goes on to offer a number of anecdotes around mistaken identities, including background checks that falsely returned show-stopping red flags such as "sex offender" or "terrorist." He even shares a story about a person whose background screen mentioned that she was deceased. These sorts of misidentifications dismantle public trust in background checks, and require that employers rethink their approach to candidate screening.

We agree: background checks can be inaccurate, and if an employer is not strictly following the guidelines of the FCRA, the inaccuracy of these checks can damage the course of an otherwise outstanding job candidate's career.

How background check companies access criminal records

But Oliver missed one key point in an otherwise entertaining nineteen minutes of dialog. The problem with background checks today is foundational, emanating from the largely manual and non-electronic method in which criminal records are accessed and stored.

When we started working in this space, most of our team thought that every American citizen's criminal record was accessible from a master database. We imagined a database buried deep under the Pentagon that could be immediately accessed by any background check company, offering results with a high degree of accuracy and clarity.

We were wrong. While there is a National Crime Information Center (NCIC) hosted by the FBI, it only contains 50-55% of all criminal records available in the US. So how do background check companies access criminal records that sit outside the database? The process looks something like this:

  1. The background check company receives information on a candidate from an employer (their client) that the candidate herself has contributed. This is an important distinction - all of the information provided comes from the candidate.

  2. While some clients pay to access the NCIC alone, most want to make sure that their candidate isn't going to pose a risk to the business. So the client asks the background check company to ensure that the candidate has not committed a crime in the counties in which that candidate has lived, moving beyond the NCIC. They employ the background check company to visit the county courthouse or federal district court where a crime may have been originally prosecuted.

  3. Background check companies don't have satellite offices in every county in America. So, on behalf of the background check company, a 'courthouse runner' will visit courthouses in some or all of the counties in which this person has lived (depending on the commercial package the employer selects), armed with the information that the candidate provided in the screening process.

  4. Many courthouses don't have electronic record systems, requiring these runners to access a dewey-decimal style database, looking up records with inconsistent data points. For example, some courthouses don't attach DOB or SSN to a person's criminal record, leaving this 'courthouse runner' trying to make an informed guess about whether or not a criminal record belongs to the person in question.

  5. Once the 'courthouse runner' thinks that they have found something, they mail a paper copy (ever seen a fuzzy Xerox?) to a background check processing center which is then digitized and placed into a candidate's file for an employer to review.

These foundational issues make maintaining accuracy tremendously difficult. This inaccuracy is well known amongst risk management professionals and HR leads across the country, and is leading people to look for other methods of assessment, including social media screening.

What Does a 21st-Century Background Check Look Like? Download Our One-Pager to Find Out