Dear Ask Rita:
I keep being told we should do criminal record checks on prospective employees and even volunteers and board members. But how? Is there a simple and cheap way to do this? And do we need their permission to do it?
Reluctant to get into the fingerprint checking business
Background screening is a good idea for all organizations, especially those working with vulnerable populations, so we’re glad you asked. As you know, there are many types of screening, such as checking criminal history or credit history, verifying credentials or licenses, reviewing motor vehicle history, or doing reference checks. This article addresses only checking on criminal history.
Whoever is suggesting criminal background checks probably also told you that criminal histories are available free on your state government website. But this is not the full story. The websites that almost all states offer (usually found through the State District Attorney site) are inmate records and, more frequently than not, only show current inmates, not former inmates. This means that most state websites will only report if a person was convicted and placed into prison. It will not report situations where a person was convicted of a felony but placed on probation. And the check will reveal only offenses that occurred within that one state.
In other words, not all states publish inmate records, and when records are available, they are only available state-by-state, frequently for current prisoners only, and typically do not include felony convictions that resulted in probation rather than prison.
So where do you go to get the best information available? Two types of criminal history record checks exist: fingerprint-based and name-based, with names being coupled with other identifiers such as date of birth, gender and Social Security number. In a 2006 report, the U.S. Attorney General acknowledged, “No single source exists that provides complete and up-to-date information about a person’s criminal history.”
We suggest doing a comprehensive screening that includes federal criminal, state/local criminal, and national sex offender screening. We’ll discuss each type and how to find a commercial service that will do all of them for you.
FBI criminal record screening
DOJ/FBI (Department of Justice/Federal Bureau of Investigation) screening: The Interstate Identification Index (III) is the national system that provides automated criminal record information, and is based on fingerprints. Contrary to common perception, the FBI’s III system is not a complete national database of all criminal history records in the United States. Many states do not submit their data to the III, and some data is excluded due to incompatible data.
And despite what an episode of CSI might lead you to believe, the process of fingerprint comparison still involves a magnifying glass and a patient human eye in addition to a computer. The FBI acknowledges that the decision to declare a match is a subjective one, based on the totality of the circumstances and the examiner’s knowledge and experience.
Only law enforcement and licensed agencies have access to the III, so you can’t do them yourself. If you do fingerprint checks infrequently, you can ask the prospective volunteer or staffperson to get a fingerprint check and have the results sent to you. It will probably cost about $50 and typically the nonprofit pays the expense. If you have many volunteers (who, for example, work with young people) and you’ll have many fingerprint checks done each year, you may wish to make an agreement with a specific fingerprint service (for example, many UPS stores do fingerprint checks).
Fingerprinting services and the associated costs vary by locality. In some cases local police stations will do them at no charge. Ask a law enforcement agency or a nearby nonprofit for referrals.
Using a commercial background screening service
Less expensive than fingerprint-based checks, background screening companies screen based on name, date of birth, Social Security number, and other identifying information. Different companies collect and store their data differently.
A comprehensive screening will use a state database search, their own internal records, and a search of counties that have not reported (or not reported recently) to their respective states. A comprehensive search like this may reveal charges and dispositions not reported to the state or national repositories.
These checks are done online using a secure dashboard. Record check information is delivered online, almost instantly. Be wary of generic background screening sites, which may not follow the appropriate FCRA (Fair Credit Reporting Act) privacy protections.
Many insurance carriers have negotiated discounted rates on criminal history background checks for their insureds. As an example, the Nonprofits Insurance Alliance Group (a sponsor of Blue Avocado) arranges for its member-insureds to get comprehensive background checks for $10 each that include multi-state felony, misdemeanor, inmate, terrorist, and sex-offender checks, as well as identify verification, — a service that normally costs $50 or more. Check with your broker or carrier to see what is available to your organization.
And remember that if your state or licensing agency requires fingerprint checking, one of these less expensive checks won’t fulfill the requirement.
If you do criminal background checks, be sure that you have a standard that you use in deciding which positions will require them. For instance, you might require them for all staff positions that have direct contact with clients, or all exempt staff, or all volunteers. If you only do background checks on individuals who seem “suspicious,” you may open yourselves to charges of discrimination.
Be sure, too, to protect the privacy and confidentiality of applicants. Make sure that any investigations or reports are locked up and secure. Keep electronic information such as email or the results of web searches secure.
There is no foolproof guarantee that any background screening will identify bad actors. Even a clean criminal history is not evidence that an individual is perfectly safe and suitable. Remember, the criminal history record check is just one element in a staff/volunteer screening process. And, although screening cannot eliminate all of the individuals who present an unacceptable risk, proper screening can reduce the likelihood that you will inadvertently select those individuals to join your organization.
And finally, a criminal record is not in itself a reason not to hire someone. For some people, what they learned through their experiences with the criminal justice system may be an important way in which they are qualified for the job. For many, a minor offense a long time ago should not make them unemployable for life. The information you obtain through a background check should inform your decision, not make it for you.
See also: Ask Rita: Facing an Immigration Registration Quandary
Ann Shanklin is the Director of Loss Control at the Nonprofits Insurance Alliance Group, where she answers questions free every day from their members on how to minimize risk. She is shown to left in an unusual position for someone trying to minimize risk. She was previously at the National Safety Council, and claims she has never, ever, filed off her own fingerprints.