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Criminal history searches have long been among the most popular types of background checks. Based on Verified Credentials’ internal research of its clients’ order history, 94% of all organizations include criminal searches in their employment screening activities. But how do those employers know what criminal history search to get?

Ask 100 employers what’s in their criminal background check, and you could get 100 different answers. It’s unique and configurable to meet the needs of your industry, company size, risk level, compliance requirements, and more. If you screen for liability, how you apply and combine different sources of criminal information can potentially help you find more records that could otherwise go unfound.

Despite widespread usage, employers often misunderstand the nuances of how these checks work and what they can possibly return. To help you get the most value out of your background screening program, here’s a foundational look at what criminal history searches are, how they work, and how you might use them to elevate your background screening program.

Types of criminal history searches

Domestic criminal history checks take on various forms depending on what you search. Here’s a quick look at the four most common types of criminal history searches:

County Criminal History Searches – This record type is often sourced directly from county courthouse sources, depending on the county searched. The search is limited to court sources in the particular county. Results include only records for offenses that happened in that county. That means that if a candidate has moved in the past, their record doesn’t move with them.

Looking at multiple counties can potentially help broaden search results. Some HR professionals rely on only candidate-provided past addresses to determine which counties to search. Others may search beyond that. Some check locations of previous employers, where they went to school, and more that may help refine the search. An ID Trace may also be able to help with this. It can potentially find undisclosed places related to the candidate using their social security number.

State Criminal History Searches – If available, most statewide sources are either state criminal repositories or archives maintained by state police. These statewide repositories typically collect county courthouse records from across the specific state. Laws and procedures can vary widely from state to state. There is no standard on how often statewide repositories are updated. It can lead to a situation where the most current records may not be available within the statewide repository.

Federal Criminal History Searches – Federal crimes are entirely different from county or state-level offenses. A federal search looks for records directly from one of the 94 U.S. Federal District Courts. These can reveal federal cases which may involve fraud, embezzlement, tax crimes, and other serious offenses like robbery and kidnapping. Federal criminal history searches are often used for employees with access to secure or financial information.

National Criminal Database SearchesThis appears to be a complete database of U.S. records based on the name. But a single source for all records doesn’t actually exist in the country. This nationwide search draws from various sources to look on a broader scale at where a person might have a criminal record. This database draws from thousands of jurisdictions to identify potential records like:

  • County courthouses
  • Department of Corrections (DOC)
  • Offender registries
  • And more

All records are then confirmed for accuracy with the original source.

Not all sources are created equal

While it’s helpful to understand the different types of criminal history searches, it’s important to know that data sources can vary. In particular, there’s a difference between searching records directly at the originating source and using database sources.

County criminal history search results come directly from a county source and are typically the most current, complete, and up-to-date records. But state criminal history searches often pull from a broader statewide database of records. This means there can be lag time between updates to the record at the county source and when the record is updated in the statewide database. The potential data gap is often why employers may choose to combine a state search with a look at county-level records.

Similarly, a National Criminal Database search may not be as complete as some think. It’s another good tool to help employers look beyond just the states and counties where a candidate may have worked or lived. There are limits, though. Some employers may choose to use additional database searches, such as a National Sex Offender Registry search, to ensure they search the broadest range of records.

While these are subtle differences, they can significantly impact the results and interpretation. Understanding both the searches and the sources is helpful for employers to know what they are actually getting.

Putting criminal history searches to use

How an organization uses criminal checks will depend on the industry, hiring policies, business goals, and other factors. But Verified Credentials has identified some significant background check trends and commonalities.

For mid-sized and enterprise-level organizations:

  • 97% use county searches
  • 94% use state searches
  • 84% use national criminal database searches
  • 49% use federal searches

According to our 2021 Industry Trends Report, across all industries, criminal history searches represent 48% of all background checks ordered in 2020. Notably, the use of statewide criminal searches jumped 22% between 2018 and 2020. This means more employers are pairing a County search with this broader state search.

Courthouse records aren’t the only searches used together, although they may reveal identical records. Roughly 85% of mid to enterprise businesses use a National Sex Offender Registry search in addition to a National Criminal Database search.

Detailed knowledge leads to better alignment

Criminal history searches are the backbone of many screening programs. But like anything else, to get the most value, it helps to know what you’re really working with. Employers that understand the subtle differences between criminal checks can tailor screening to align with company policies and hiring goals.

Want more information on how criminal history searches can help protect your business? Contact Verified Credentials to schedule a call with our team.

Please consult with your legal counsel for any questions about what criminal history sources meet your requirements. They can help guide what background information your organization needs.

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