In employment screening, all criminal background checks are not alike. They can be from the narrowest, most focused type (generally a county court search) to the broadest (a national commercial database search).
Let’s examine some of the differences.
The narrower search at the county level is the most detailed. The information is contained in the file from a criminal proceeding, and is public record. All details of the record are contained there from the date of the offense until the final disposition. Generally, these types of records are obtained by a runner, a live person who goes to the courthouse, looks up the name in an index, and pulls the actual file to examine the information that is recorded and reported as part of the background check. Some county indexes are on line, although the record itself is maintained physically at the courthouse. The advantage to this type of search is that it is extremely accurate and detailed. The disadvantage is that it is narrow and doesn’t include nearby counties where the individual may have committed crimes.
Next is the statewide criminal repository, which approximately 40 of the 50 states make available for defined purposes. The repository is made up of criminal information forwarded from local police departments, as well as municipal, lower, and upper courts. The advantage here is that the search covers a much broader area than a county specific search, but all statewide repositories are not equal. Some include only conviction information, which precludes pending cases, while others are too slow or expensive to use, making them impractical. The decision to utilize a statewide repository depends on cost, accuracy, and the content included. Not all local courts report every court action to the repository usually by oversight, but some repositories are very thorough. Your background check company generally knows which ones to avoid.
Finally, the national commercial database is an extremely broad based search. The information contained in it comes from government agencies that sell the information to subscribers, and from public sources such as on-line court systems or state departments of correction (prison inmates). The data may also come from searches that have been conducted on an individual in the past and been added to the database. This type of search can be a valuable add on tool to a more specific search, but should never be relied upon solely to make an employment decision. The advantage to this type is obviously breadth, while the disadvantages are accuracy and timeliness of the information provided. Identifiers like dates of birth and social security numbers are frequently redacted, and criminal information may be only sporadically uploaded to the database, missing recent criminal activity. Further, a crime may have been expunged by the court, but remain on the database, causing problems to the applicant and the employer.