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Survey Insights Blog Series – #1: An Overview of Findings from the 2018 Survey of State Criminal History Records Repository Administrators

The United States Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) recently published the latest findings of a biennial national survey that represents the most current and detailed snapshot of the data, trends, policies, practices, and operations of state criminal history records repositories nationwide.

The Survey of State Criminal History Information Systems, 2018 was conducted by SEARCH, The National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics, with support of BJS, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. As part of its National Criminal History Improvement Program (NCHIP), BJS has supported these biennial surveys since 1989, together with substantial direct funding to states and territories to improve the quality, timeliness, and accessibility of criminal history and related records, and a host of other research, conferences, workshops, and technical assistance.

The 2018 report provides results from a survey of the administrators of state criminal history records repositories conducted May–July 2019 for calendar year information ending December 31, 2018. SEARCH surveyed 56 jurisdictions, including the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the territories. All 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Guam submitted survey responses.

The survey findings are very detailed and provide insight into the volume of records and transactions processed by repositories, operational policies and best practices, levels of automation, measures of data quality and timeliness, types of records and systems maintained, information sharing capabilities, technology refreshment plans and more.

To make these detailed findings more accessible, and to provide operational context, SEARCH is publishing a series of nine blogs that highlight key survey findings. This first blog provides an overview of the past 10 years on the growth of criminal history records and the expanding use and accelerating demand for these records. Additional posts in this blog series will address critical trends and metrics.

Expanded Focus in 2018

SEARCH and BJS have conducted the Survey of State Criminal History Information Systems since 1989 and periodically introduce new topics to explore emerging trends and to gain insight into new initiatives.

This most recent survey—the 15th in the series—was expanded to address several issues based on user feedback, including:

  • More detailed information on upgrades and replacements of computerized criminal history (CCH) repositories, automated fingerprint identification systems (AFIS), and state Message Switches
  • Operations budgets for criminal history repositories
  • Staffing levels for criminal history repositories
  • Auditing practices for monitoring data quality
  • Cite-and-release policies, where individuals are issued a summons to appear in court in lieu of a formal, custodial arrest
  • Statewide citation files
  • More detailed information on arrest and disposition matching

Overview of Criminal History Records

Criminal history records are the most significant and consequential source of information at every decision point throughout the justice enterprise. Criminal history records are used by law enforcement for investigative and public safety purposes; by prosecutors in determining whether to prosecute and what charges to file; by courts in setting bail and pretrial conditions, sentencing, and in establishing risk and setting conditions of probation; and in virtually every other decision point throughout the justice enterprise.

Criminal history records are also increasingly used for an expanding array of noncriminal justice purposes, including firearms purchases, professional licensing, employment and volunteer screening, providing protection from domestic violence and stalking, conducting national security background checks, and notifying licensing authorities when a person who has cleared their background investigation is subsequently arrested or convicted for a disqualifying offense. Since 2014, the number of noncriminal justice requests for criminal history data has outpaced the number of criminal justice requests.

Criminal history records are biometrically based, longitudinal histories created by collecting information from the operational records and case management systems of state and local justice agencies. The agencies responsible for accurately and timely reporting of transactional data (arrests, prosecutions, and court dispositions) to state criminal history record repositories sometimes fail to do so, thereby creating gaps and omissions from the authoritative rap sheet. Missing, inaccurate, incomplete, and delayed data can seriously compromise the value of the criminal history record and jeopardize the validity of employment, regulatory, and security suitability determinations.

10-year Snapshot

To provide context for this year’s survey data, SEARCH analyzed the results from previous surveys to see how they compare to the current cycle. Below is a discussion of trends and findings.

— The number of subjects in state criminal history files continues to increase, but at a slower rate than in previous years

Between 2008 and 2018, the number of subjects (i.e., individual offenders) in state criminal history records repositories has continued to increase, growing by 21.9 percent, from 92.3 million records to more than 112 million records (Figure 1). Moreover, in efforts to improve the quality, accessibility and timeliness of criminal history records, states are increasingly automating older paper-based criminal history records, which have declined over 52 percent in the past decade, dropping from 6.5 million manual records in 2008 to 3.1 million records in 2018.

Figure 1

States reported that they maintain over 112 million records within their criminal history repositories, but this does not mean that 112 million individuals have criminal history records. Here’s why:

  • If a person is deceased, repositories will typically only remove or deactivate his or her criminal history record upon receiving a valid death certificate and a complete set of the decedent’s fingerprints to compare and match against the fingerprints that support the subject’s record. Unfortunately, fingerprints are rarely taken when a person dies and as such, they are not available when a Death Certificate is issued. This means that many active records within the state criminal history systems belong to persons who are no longer alive.
  • Subjects may have criminal history records in multiple states. If a person is arrested in a state where they do not live or moves to another state, the state where the arrest is recorded still maintains a record of the individual.
  • Criminal history files originate as arrest records reported to state repositories, but not all arrests result in formal charges

— Demand for Non-Criminal Justice Background Checks Continues to Surge

From 2008 to 2018 we have seen a substantial increase in the overall demand for state criminal history record information (CHRI). The total number of background checks grew from 41.2 million in 2008 to 49 million in 2018, an increase of 18.2 percent (Figure 2).

Figure 2

The number of civil users of criminal history record information (CHRI) is outstripping the number of criminal justice users. Name-based civil searches increased 22.1 percent from 2008‒2018 (from 19 million to 23.2 million), and fingerprint-based civil searches grew by 51.5 percent (from 10.1 million to 15.3 million), while criminal justice fingerprint-based searches actually trended down, declining 13.2 percent (from 12.1 million to 10.5 million).

Since 2014, the number of fingerprints processed for non-criminal justice background check purposes has overtaken those processed for criminal justice purposes. During the most recent survey cycle, 59 percent of all fingerprint-based background checks were conducted to support non-criminal justice decisions regarding licensing, employment, volunteer work, and other authorized civil purposes. Given the consequences of civil record checks, which directly impact an individual’s ability to gain employment, housing and professional licensing, there is an ever-growing demand for timely, accurate, and complete information.

Recognizing the vastly expanding demand for CHRI—and the impact this demand places on state repositories—underscores the need for additional staffing and technical resources, updates and replacement of antiquated information systems, and tighter linkages for greater information sharing with other systems (e.g., court and prosecutor case management systems). The 2018 survey included questions regarding the status of critical technology resources within state repositories and upcoming blogs will explore this information in more detail. It is worth noting, however, that 11 states reported having a CCH system that was less than one year old and another seven states reported that they were in the process of implementing a new CCH system. In contrast, 11 states also reported having CCH systems that were over 10 years old—ranging in age from 11 to 34 years.[1] Six of the 11 states with the most antiquated CCH systems, reported that they were planning to implement a new system.[2]

— Backlogs in Processing Arrest Fingerprint Cards

Technological advances in fingerprint processing supported by livescan[3] devices and Automated Biometric Identification Systems (ABIS) technologies continue to produce significant improvements in the speed and accuracy of confirming or establishing a person’s identity with biometric precision. The volume and speed with which fingerprints are collected and transmitted from booking stations in local jails and detention centers, and from applicant agencies to a state criminal history records repository for ABIS processing, enables rapid updating and reporting of criminal record information.

Over the past decade, the number of states with arrest fingerprint backlogs has been cut in half—with 14 states reporting a backlog in 2008 compared to only 7 states in the 2018 survey.[4]  This progress is largely due to the expanding and widespread implementation of livescan devices and ABIS systems throughout the country.

— Backlogs in Processing Court Dispositions

When court dispositions are not processed by criminal history repositories in a timely fashion, gaps in the criminal history record may occur, which can negatively impact the quality of information available for employment and licensing determinations, firearms background checks, criminal investigations, and sentencing decisions. Since the presence of an arrest only does not typically disqualify a person from employment consideration or purchasing a firearm, background investigators and staff at the FBI National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) Unit and state criminal history repositories conduct additional research into arrest records with missing dispositions before making suitability determinations for civil purposes. Similarly, criminal investigators, prosecutors, and probation officials must often spend considerable time researching arrest outcomes when dispositions are missing from the arrest record in making pre-sentencing recommendations, since convictions may trigger sentencing enhancements under most state sentencing schemes.

As of December 31, 2018, twenty-four states reported having a backlog of over 2 million court dispositions that need to be entered into state criminal history databases (Figure 3).[5]

Figure 3

Figure 4

As Figures 3 and 4 indicate, the number of states with disposition backlogs has fluctuated from 2008 to 2018, with declines in 2016 and 2018. The number of incomplete records resulting from delays in entering court dispositions increased by 22 percent when comparing 2008 to 2018. SEARCH encourages states to consider applying for National Criminal History Improvement Program (NCHIP) and NICS Act Record Improvement Program (NARIP) funds from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) to support hiring personnel and/or implementing automated disposition reporting from court case management systems to help reduce the persistent problem of backlogged dispositions.

[1] Becki R. Goggins and Dennis DeBacco, Survey of State Criminal History Information Systems, 2018, (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2020), Table 13.

[2] Ibid., Table 13a.

[3] The term “livescan” refers to both the technique and technology used to electronically capture fingerprint and palm print images without the need for the more traditional ink-and-paper methods. Livescan techniques refer to the way in which operators properly capture electronic fingerprint images to ensure they are of sufficient quality to be accepted by the state repositories and the FBI. Livescan devices are the underlying technology used to collect and electronically transmit digitized images and accompanying textual information to post to a criminal history repository.

[4] Becki R. Goggins and Dennis DeBacco, Survey of State Criminal History Information Systems, 2018, (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2020), Table 10a.

[5] Ibid., Table 12.

Nevada Department of Public Safety: A Success Story

Editor’s Note: Readers may have noticed a dramatic spike in the number of backlogged dispositions during 2014 in Figure 4. The primary reason for the single-year jump was due to over 1 million previously unreported dispositions in Nevada. While this created significant challenges at the time, Nevada’s response to addressing these backlogged dispositions represents a success story.

As reported in the 2014 survey, the Nevada Department of Public Safety (NDPS) discovered that dozens of courts were not reporting dispositions to the state criminal history repository. Due to changes in court personnel over the years, where new staff had not been trained on reporting requirements, it was determined that over 1 million court records statewide were missing from the criminal history repository, including one large court in which approximately 700,000 records had not been submitted. 

NDPS hired 10 permanent staff and 10 temporary staff with state funding and was able to secure a NICS Act Records Improvement Program (NARIP) grant in 2013 to hire an additional 10 temporary staff to help eliminate the backlog.  Due to budget cuts in 2017, under the FY16 NARIP grant, NDPS shifted the funding of 10 temporary staff from NDPS budgetary reserves to the FY16 NARIP grant, for a total of 20 temporary staff funded under NARIP awards. In 2018, under the FY17 NARIP grant, NDPS reduced its temporary employee workforce from 20 to 18. All courts are now fully reporting dispositions, and the initial backlog has been eliminated. NDPS has assigned permanent employees to each court to monitor disposition reporting and continues to leverage federal grant funds to provide outreach and education.  Although the initial backlog has been eliminated, NDPS continues to utilize temporary staff funded by NARIP to reduce additional disposition backlogs, some of which were discovered during the initial backlog elimination project.  These backlogs include conversion data clean-up, sentencing reports, electronic disposition error reports and electronic disposition entry into III.  The NDPS effort has been educational, created partnerships, and significantly improved the state’s level of criminal history record completeness. 

This program went from 6 employees to 36 employees almost overnight. We were able to eliminate this particular backlog of over 1 million records in less than 4 years, which is just short of a miracle, given the number of dispositions and the constant turnover of staff. I am beyond proud of my staff’s accomplishment. It was highlighted up to our Governor at the time, Brian Sandoval, who publicly praised our staff’s efforts.

Mindy McKay, Division Administrator and CSO, Records, Communications and Compliance Division, Nevada Department of Public Safety

BeckiGogginsAbout the Author

Ms. Becki Goggins is Director of Law and Policy at SEARCH. She oversees SEARCH’s work in the areas of criminal history records, development of laws and policies concerning the use of justice information and protection of privacy, implementation of evidence-based practices, and the use of technology to improve justice information sharing. As an organization, SEARCH was originally founded to facilitate the exchange of criminal history record information (CHRI) between the states. Learn more about SEARCH’s work with criminal history records and the surveys we conduct on CHRI issues.

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Karen Lissy

Ms. Karen Lissy is a Justice Information Services Specialist for the Law and Policy Program of SEARCH, The National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics. In this position, she provides assistance to state and local justice and public safety agencies to collect, curate, and use National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) data and computerized criminal history record (CCH/CHRI) information for policy analysis and development.

She also guides justice and related organizations in how to craft and implement laws, policies, practices, and technology applications to effectively collect and use CCH and related justice/public safety data; address legal, policy, and regulatory issues associated with CCH data; better manage and operate criminal justice information and identification systems; and develop security and privacy policies that protect justice information sharing systems.

Ms. Lissy has nearly two decades of research and data analysis experience, having led projects and tasks in support of two agencies within the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs (the Bureau of Justice Statistics and National Institute of Justice), as well as the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, and multiple foundations, including Ford, Annie E. Casey, and Hewlett. Prior to joining SEARCH in October 2020, Ms. Lissy served as a Social Science Researcher at RTI International, as a regional Crime Analyst for the Redmond (WA) Police Department, and as Director of a research program with the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis. Beginning in 2012, Ms. Lissy’s work has focused on improving data in law enforcement to answer policy questions and improve community/police relations.

Ms. Lissy earned a Bachelor’s degree in Public Policy from Duke University, and a Master’s in Public Health from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.