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The Statewide Criminal Record Databases: How Good Are They?

April 10, 2012 | Comments: 0 | Views: 82

Criminal court records are perhaps the most widely sought public record in the U.S. The process of researching court records online can be very complicated and frustrating because of the extensive diversity of the accessibility and content. Each state has two possible online resources of criminal court record content-

  1. The court administration agency that oversees the state's trial and appellate court system. This agency is usually referred to as the Administration Office of the Courts (AOC) or the State Court Administration.
  2. The designated state agency holding the criminal record repository. The agency may be known by such names as the Criminal Record Bureau or State Police or Department of Public Safety, etc.

About the State Court Administrator's Records

Most states have a centralized case management system managed by this agency. In 32 states this agency offers a program for a public search of state or county court docket information. Most programs are online, but Mississippi and South Dakota offer unique, non-online statewide programs. A search in these court managed systems can be a particularly useful tool in those states - such as NY, NC, or UT - which do not permit a search from the state's criminal records repository.

Note: Overall, only 65% of the courts holding felony records provide online access. Also, many states will not sell their data in bulk electronic format. These facts make you wonder about the legitimacy of some of the so-called instant national background checks being sold on the Web.

About the State Criminal Record Repositories

As mentioned, all states have a central criminal record repository of records on individuals who have been subject to that state's criminal justice system. The repository content comes from information submitted by state, county, parish, and municipal courts as well as from local law enforcement. Information forwarded to this agency includes notations of arrests and charges, all usually with a set of fingerprints. Afterward the disposition is later forwarded as well (most of the time). 27 states offer access online to the repository.

How to Measure the Worthiness of these Online Sources

The value of a statewide criminal record search varies by state. Online researchers need to be aware of the many possible nuances and variations. For example; 1) there is no instant online statewide search in AZ since the 2nd largest county is not online, but many firms tout this "instant" service; 2) In MN, there are cases not on the statewide online system but do appear on the courthouse terminal system. Here are five factors to consider when evaluating the online statewide sources.

  1. Is the site considered to have onsite equivalency? In other words, does the public access terminal (PAT) at the courthouse provide the exact same results and content as when searching online?
  2. What is the date range of the records online - meaning how far back do the records go online? Not all online sources go back 7 years
  3. How reliable is the database in terms of completeness and accuracy? Are all incidents recorded? Are all dispositions recorded? Are records updated? Are all courts reporting?
  4. What identifiers are provided - do you get the full DOB in order to match the subject to the record?
  5. Is the online site termed to be an Official Site or is it a Public Information site with a very distinct and strong Disclaimer?

Pluses and Minus of the Court Systems

In general, the records found at the Office of Court Administration are more likely to show arrests and have the final disposition than records found at the state repository.

Often the online search is free, but not always. The use of subscription accounts is common. A growing trend is to offer online access to information on a pay-as-you-go basis. Some agencies will give you a glimpse of the index or docket, but will charge a fee for the record copy. Some allow the record to be printed on the spot; others may only mail a document.

As accurate as the best statewide online systems may be, the fact remains there will always be stories about exceptions, errors, typos, etc. The recording of records is still a condition where humans are doing data entry - so the phrase Garbage In, Garbage Out is applicable to some degree.

Pluses and Minus of the State Repository Systems

The State Criminal Bureau often only has records submitted with fingerprints. While this is helpful when identifying the correct subject of the search, these records are more apt to only have convictions (no pendings) or to be missing dispositions or delayed disposition updates. Often deferred adjudication cases that were revoked resulting in a conviction at the county court do not make it into the repository. So how widespread is the disposition problem? Per the most recent statistics released by the U.S. Department of Justice, there was a backlog of 1.6 million unprocessed or partially processed court dispositions not entered into the states' criminal history databases. 1

Please don't misunderstand the message here - there are certainly good reasons for performing a search of a state repository record database. A statewide search covers a wider geographic range than a county search and is certainly less expensive than a separate search of each county. Many states do have strong database systems. But having access to the complete record with the final disposition can be a problem. And state statutes often designate this agency to be the official state repository-regardless of the completeness or accuracy.

The Bottom Line

A significant factor all providers and end-users of criminal records should consider boils down to a key concept - "What if the worthiness of the database is needed to show in court? Can you justify the validity of the search of the record source?"

Many consumer reporting agencies take the approach that for proper due diligence when performing a criminal record search, the best procedure is to use a statewide search with a county on-site search. And a search from a database vendor should also be considered as a key supplementary search. This is extremely critical for employers making hiring decisions in states with legislative limitations on using criminal court records without dispositions or when using misdemeanor records.

1 The statistics here are taken from U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistic's Survey of State Criminal History Information Systems, 2008 (released October 2009) found at

About BRB Publications

BRB Publications, Inc is a premier publisher of print and online reference sources for public records. BRB's books and electronic products point the way to over 26,000 government agencies, accredited schools, and to 3,500 record vendors who maintain, search or retrieve public records.

BRB's data goes well beyond a Google search. The data provided by BRB includes in-depth descriptions of record access policies and procedures, access methods, restrictions, all fees, turn around times, identifiers shown on records, and other needed tips and info used for public record searching. The books and Web products are up-to-date, comprehensive and affordable. BRB Publications is a past recipient of the Publisher of the Year awardfrom by Quality Books and is a past winner of a Product Achievement Award from the Information Industry Association.

Facts on Demand Press, an imprint of BRB, specializes in business management, background investigations, Internet-related references, and research publications found in book stores. The books are up-to-date, accurate, and reasonably priced.

This article was written by Michael Sankey of BRB Publications, Inc. and appears in the April 2012 Issue of BRB's Newsletter - The Public Record Update.

Source: EzineArticles
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