Massachusetts, the state recently started requiring FBI fingerprint-based criminal background searches for teachers and other school employees. Previously, all that was required was a Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) search. As statewide repositories go, CORI is generally accepted as being one of the good ones. Most other states don’t have a one-search option allowing private employers to skip the county-by-county court searches that are as good as CORI.

Still, CORI provides criminal record information from Massachusetts courts only.  The vilest offender with a criminal conviction record in another state will go undetected if the employer only searches the CORI system. That’s not a knock on CORI; it does what it’s designed to do pretty well. But lawmakers here and elsewhere do not want to take a chance that a school teacher or a school bus driver has a conviction record in another state involving violence, sex offenses or some other crime making the individual unfit to work around children. They can’t leave it to chance that a record in another state goes undetected because they continue to rely on a system that reports in-state convictions only.

So Massachusetts, like so many other states before, has started requiring fingerprints to be taken and submitted to the FBI. The Bureau then searches its database that contains records from across the country. Many private employers are also mandated to follow this process due to the sensitive nature of the jobs for which they hire.


So, Problem Solved, Right?

Apparently, lawmakers believe this to be so as they continue to pass laws requiring fingerprint-based background checks. For sure, if the issue is a question of identity, fingerprints are the way to go.  My name is David Sawyer, but if I tell you it’s John Doe because I don’t want you to search for records under my name, you could miss finding that record that I’m trying to hide from you. 

The problem is that lawmakers watch television just like the rest of us do. And TV shows portray the FBI database as the holy grail of all databases. Type a name on the keyboard and within seconds, every parking ticket the subject has received, every job he’s ever held, and what book clubs he belongs to is revealed. Lawmakers, and the rest of us TV watchers too, need to realize that it just isn’t that easy.

Criminal records are created in courts. Whether convicted or not, the record is maintained by the court. So, for that record to get into the FBI database (or CORI or any other database), the court has to share the information. Frankly, some states are better at this than others and not all criminal records make their way into the FBI’s database. Of those that do, not all contain final dispositions. Employers need to know whether or not there was a conviction when making a hiring decision, but the FBI doesn’t always know this. In fact, the Department of Justice has acknowledged that the FBI is still missing final disposition information for approximately 50 percent of its records. 

The extent to which each state reports records to the FBI varies widely. The federal government acknowledges that it’s possible to obtain more accurate information from professional background screeners. We place a lot of trust in fingerprint technology and in the FBI. We want to be sure we get it right when it comes to protecting school children. 

But maybe the answer isn’t a simple one. If one needs to be certain of an identity, no one will argue the validity of fingerprints. But what good does it do to be absolutely certain you’ve got the right person if your search about that person is flawed? 

No database on earth contains all criminal records. Therefore, professional background screeners generally take the following approach:

  1. Identify the subject via driver’s license, passport, etc.
  2. Run a Social Security number trace that provides names and addresses associated with the number.
  3. Compare the information provided with what is known including the death master file of the Social Security Administration (if the subject provided a false SSN, it’s usually apparent).
  4. Search county court records and state repositories in the jurisdiction(s) where the subject is known to have resided.
  5. Search commercial database(s) that aggregate court records on a national basis.

This tried and true method, while not perfect, has been working well for many years and the error rate for professional background screeners (not those instant online searches) is generally considered to be very low. In reputable companies, reports are rarely challenged, and even fewer turn out to have something missing or incorrect.

In addition, professional background screeners are heavily regulated, and consumers are afforded widespread protections under the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) and additional state regulations. The FBI is not considered a Consumer Reporting Agency and therefore not subject to the FCRA. While a background screening company is required to reinvestigate when a complaint is lodged and resolve the matter within 30 days, the FBI has no such compulsion.

Time is also usually of the essence in these situations. Employers who purchase background screening services need and expect answers quickly. The turnaround times for professional background screeners are generally three business days or less. The FBI often takes 45 days or more to provide a report that is frequently incomplete and still needs additional research.


The Answer?

It may well be that the answer lies somewhere in between. But, for companies with limited budgets, needing fast and accurate results, the clear choice is a professional background screening company. In addition, the need to comply with the new laws mandating the use fingerprint-based searches may offer many companies and school districts a false sense of security, and so will stop their searches there. They will satisfy the law and do no more, unintentionally putting children and others at risk. Background checks help employers select the right individuals to fill open positions. Especially when the safety of children, the elderly or other vulnerable people is at stake, a thorough background check is a must. But let’s be careful when passing mandates requiring employers to do it one way, when there is clearly a better, more accurate method that is quicker and provides better protections to consumers. 


About the Author: David C. Sawyer, CPP, is President of Safer Places, Inc., a full service background screening and drug testing company serving clients nationwide. He can be reached at