Pre-hire background checks are a best practice for businesses, volunteer organizations, churches, schools, and any other organization that recruits and manages a workforce. Today, they are an almost ubiquitous step in the hiring process. According to a 2017 study from HR.com and the National Association of Professional Background Screeners, 96% of U.S. employers conduct at least one type of pre-hire background screen.
Despite background screening experiencing massive growth over the past decade and becoming a standard step in the hiring process, the underlying process and product hasn’t changed much.
Background screening companies should be looking for opportunities to enhance existing solutions and innovate. Expanding their criminal justice data set is one way consumer reporting agencies (CRAs) can improve the quality and timeliness of their background screens. Criminal justice data may include arrest data, incarceration activity, court case records, and records from other government sources.
Let’s look at how incarceration data, such as booking and release activity, can improve the quality of a background screen.
The Typical Background Screen Process
Most background checks begin with an “SSN Trace” using the candidate’s provided social security number (SSN). This process involves searching for the candidate’s SSN against various databases that include credit header information. The credit header file consists of the non-financial identification information for a given identification. It is compiled from a variety of sources, such as utility bills, bank statements, credit card applications, magazine subscriptions, and car loan applications.
The SSN Trace helps verify and identify the addresses and aliases given by the candidate when consenting to the background check, while simultaneously providing the CRA additional addresses and aliases associated with the candidate over the past seven years.
Typically, an SSN Trace uncovers many addresses and an average of two to three relevant counties per person. These data sets can be a reliable source of person information, despite being inconsistent.
SSN Traces often rely on messy data. As a person’s financial history becomes more complex (e.g. frequent moves, co-signing with children on student loan applications, etc.), the SSN Trace can become less reliable. However, this data is only used to point the screening company to the proper source for a criminal record check and never used to make any other decisions or judgments on the subject.
Following the SSN Trace, the CRA then runs the candidate’s name, aliases, and other personally identifiable information (PII) against a national criminal file. This “nat-crim” data set helps the CRA uncover the individual’s possible previous interactions with the criminal justice system. Some CRAs assemble and maintain their own proprietary nat-crim file; other CRAs work with third-party data providers during this step.
Nat-crim files can provide additional county/counties relevant to a person that the SSN Trace doesn’t uncover.
Nat-crim files are beneficial because they provide pointers into potential criminal activity in locations not tied to a person’s residence or work. However, nat-crim files aren’t as comprehensive as their name suggests. They typically hold only about 10% of the existing criminal data in the United States.
Put another way, if you put 1000 random Americans with a known misdemeanor or felony in a room and ran a nat-crim search on them, the search would miss 900 of those records.
Direct Court Search
Ultimately, both the SSN Trace and the nat-crim search provide CRAs with a list of locations relevant to an individual’s current and previous residence(s), work, travel, and interaction with the criminal justice system. These locations are consolidated into a list of jurisdictions (typically counties or large metros) in which the CRA will conduct direct court searches to discover potential criminal activity.
Some county courts have online portals where the CRA can manually search for records associated with an individual. Many still require a person (usually called a “court runner”) to visit the courthouse in person and request relevant records from the county clerk.
The results of these direct court searches are what appear on the final background screen report shared with employers and candidates.
Adding Incarceration Data into the Background Screen
National incarceration data greatly improves the effectiveness of a standard background screen.
Appriss Safety’s incarceration data set differs from traditional nat-crim data because it offers a growing collection of more than 140 million booking records from county jails and state prisons. Nat-crim files rarely contain county-level incarceration data.
Appriss Safety’s incarceration data provides benefits a traditional background screen does not have:
- Greater coverage than nat-crim files due to data interfaces with 2,000+ jails and prisons
- A longer history, reaching further back than both the SSN Trace and nat-crim data sets
- Booking and release activity updated in near real-time
Due to its broader coverage and better timeliness, CRAs run candidates against Appriss incarceration data during the first phase of a background screen, alongside the SSN Trace and nat-crim search.
The addition of incarceration data provides a significant lift in the total number of locations relevant to the applicant. By adding Appriss Safety’s nationwide incarceration data into their pre-hire background screening process, CRAs typically see between a 10% and 20% increase in additional jurisdictions to investigate.
In addition to providing more investigative revenue to CRAs, better incarceration data helps uncover more potential criminal activity from applicants. Ultimately, this means better background screens to reduce employee insider risk, protect consumers from becoming victims of crime, and ensure safer workplaces and communities.
In the past few years, I have regularly pushed for more innovation in the background screening industry. With a few notable exceptions, CRAs are sticking to the same processes and products they have for years.
CRAs can position themselves for success in the coming years by expanding and improving their background screening data sources. Incorporating national incarceration data into the background screen is an important step forward.
While incarceration data certainly helps CRAs grow their businesses, it also serves a more important purpose: advancing the fundamental and founding mission of our industry – keeping customers, employees and communities safe.