SEARCH Releases New National Focus Group Report on Post-Hurricane Katrina Criminal Record Checks

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SEARCH has published the report of a national focus group that examined criminal record background checks undertaken of displaced Gulf Coast evacuees, volunteers and others in wake of one of the nation's most devastating national disasters-Hurricane Katrina.

The focus group, convened by SEARCH and the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), U.S. Department of Justice, under BJS funding, looked at how these checks were conducted in the wake of the historic storm and to consider ways that ensure these checks can be accomplished more fairly and effectively in the future, should the need arise.

Following the hurricane, the National Crime Prevention and Privacy Compact Council and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) implemented procedures that enabled states and local law enforcement to attempt to address public safety issues by conducting background checks. The checks were conducted primarily to prevent the placement of potentially dangerous individuals in shelters. Also checked were volunteers and individuals who opened their homes to evacuees.

The checks proved controversial and were decried as unnecessarily intrusive for individuals who had already been traumatized by the hurricane. The controversy revealed the need for thoughtful and comprehensive policies governing the criminal history background process in such events.

"By examining the past in the hope that lessons learned can be applied to the future, the focus group met in October 2006 to discuss issues associated with these checks and other concerns," noted SEARCH Law and Policy Director Owen Greenspan. "This report catalogs the discussions, experiences and suggestions for policy refinements for instances of mass relocation following catastrophic events."

Report of the National Focus Group on Emergency Housing and Criminal Record Checks: The Hurricane Katrina Experience (3.5 mb) will be available soon on the National Criminal Justice Reference Service.

The focus group was comprised of 13 individuals from local, state and federal justice agencies in the Gulf Coast region, the Compact Council, FBI, and states that welcomed evacuees. It was chaired by Lt. Frank Higginbotham, Commander, Identification Unit, Alabama Bureau of Investigation, who serves on the SEARCH Membership Group. Other SEARCH Members who served on the focus group were:
  • Mr. Mike Lesko, Deputy Administrator, Crime Records Service, Texas Department of Public Safety;
  • Mr. Charles A. Pruitt, Director Arkansas Crime Information Center;
  • Mr. David G. Sim, Assistant Director, Information Services, Kansas Bureau of Investigation; and
  • Maj. Carlotta Stackhouse, Assistant Director, Criminal Justice Information Services, South Carolina Law Enforcement Division.

The report was written by Eric Johnson, a justice information services specialist with SEARCH under the direction of Mr. Greenspan.