It is illegal to ask a job candidate if they have ever been arrested. The arrest could have not lead to a conviction. The arrest could have been downgraded to a different crime altogether. This could mean the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor crime. Criminal background checks do not legally research arrests.
The legal way is to ask about any convictions. That means a court found them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If the court found them guilty, then this information is generally public record, which means you can have access to it, as a potential employer.
Convictions are the end result of an arrest. It is the final determination of guilty or not guilty. It is also the final result of any plea bargains or other considerations to reduce a conviction to a lesser crime.
By asking about arrests, you can have a potentially negative response to a job candidate. This is an unfair stance for the candidate who may have been cleared/ found not guilty of those charges. You can be held liable for not hiring someone because you asked the wrong questions.
The best way to do this is to inquire on the application. This gives the applicant the opportunity to disclose any convictions and also give any explanations they feel necessary. You are then allowed to validate these convictions during pre employment screening and any further criminal background checks you need to conduct.
Even a lesser crime will show up if there was an actual conviction, not just an arrest.
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