The Questions about Criminal Background Checks

By Naftzger, David | State Legislatures, May 1999 | Go to article overview

The Questions about Criminal Background Checks


Naftzger, David, State Legislatures


States will give up some sovereignty but gain important tools with a new compact linking federal and state efforts on criminal background checks.

Should your child's teacher undergo a criminal background check? What about nurses and doctors, attorneys or even your barber?

While such checks have been used for many years in the military, as well as banking and other industries, the number of professionals subject to this scrutiny is set to skyrocket. In response to several high-profile cases of abuse as well as public concern for possible victims, federal legislation requiring checks on prospective foster parents and nursing home employees has recently been adopted.

These politically popular measures are, on the one hand, a relatively inexpensive and nonintrusive way to improve security in sensitive professions. On the other hand, criminal background checks are, in certain circumstances, arguably an invasion of privacy and a threat to personal liberty. Up until now, state legislators have confronted these issues through state laws. Now legislators must decide whether to enter into a new state-federal partnership, the National Crime Prevention and Privacy Compact.

Until recently, all criminal record searches were conducted using a dual state-federal system. The state agency would search its own records and submit an inquiry to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI would search a record of federal offenders and duplicate records it maintains of state information.

In 1980, the FBI began the Interstate Identification Index (III), a decentralized system designed to handle interstate and federal-state criminal record searches. Thirty-nine states currently participate in III. Although all states permit virtually unrestricted access to criminal history records for criminal justice purposes, state laws governing access and use for other purposes are diverse. Policies range from essentially open records in a few states to very restrictive rules in others. Laws differ on what constitutes a reportable offense, what disposition information (acquittal, conviction, etc. …

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