3 Opportunities to Improve National Criminal Searches

Background screeners must maintain an intricate balance between several critical expectations:

  • reducing risk for organizations across the U.S.
  • remaining in compliance with federal, state, and local regulations
  • delivering records expeditiously
  • keeping costs down for their customers

Strong performance against all of these goals is no easy feat. Recently, increased scrutiny from news organizations and the American public has added additional layers of complexity for CRAs. On the one hand, customers are holding businesses to high standards of safety and security. A single “missed” misdemeanor on the background check of a rogue employee creates bad publicity for the CRA and employer. On the other hand, a growing awareness of the challenges of integrating into society following incarceration has pushed more people to advocate for fair-chance hiring practices.

This increased scrutiny into the screening industry presents many challenges for CRAs. But it also lays the foundation for innovation that can simultaneously improve the quality, scope, and efficiency of background checks.

What an “Improved Nat-Crim” Used to Mean

More than 96% of U.S. employers conduct these background checks today to help employers make informed hiring decisions, according to the Professional Background Screeners Association. More than 80% of those checks include a search of a national-criminal database to identify counties where criminal activity is likely. The results of this “nat-crim” search (alongside an address history search), typically create a list of counties where the CRA will perform a “county-crim” check.

Since their introduction, the nat-crim search has become an industry best practice for conducting thorough, accurate, and effective background checks. Now, more than twenty years since these data solutions were introduced to the industry, there is a significant opportunity—and need—for innovation in national criminal file searches.

Traditionally, the way to improve national criminal searches has been to simply add more data sources. Through improved data extraction technology, purchasing or licensing additional data sets, or jurisdictional agreements, the overall scope of a national criminal search expands. Additionally, many providers will add in the results from county-crim searches into their nat-crim file, a smart method that helps a nat-crim search grow and remain fresh.

While the inclusion of new data in a nat-crim search can increase the scope of the search, it also tends to increase the amount of noise in the results. Noise is a significant problem in any data solution. In the case of national criminal searches, it can mean results that contain many duplicates, incomplete records, or simply an increased volume of data for staff to sort through manually.

Each record returned by the national criminal search must be reviewed by the background screener to determine whether to run a county-crim search in that jurisdiction. The impact of each of these decisions is tremendous. County court searches that turn up no relevant convictions add time and expense to the process, without identifying any potential risk. Choosing to not perform a county court search could result in missed criminal activity.

Nat-Crim to County-Crim Decision Matrix

This problem presents the largest opportunity for innovation in nat-crim searches: how can we provide more data without adding more noise?

Opportunity 1: Returning Fewer False Positives

Research teams at background screeners are responsible for reviewing results of nat-crim searches and making determinations on whether a provided record warrants ordering a full county-crim search. Records teams often filter out a majority of the returned records. Many CRAs have whole teams dedicated to removing false positives (records that are associated with a different person than the search was conducted for) from the results of nat-crim searches.

False positives have a major impact on the efficiency and cost of a background screen. In many cases, county court searches are ordered based on nat-crim results, only to turn up no criminal activity. In other cases, the background screener chooses not to run the county-criminal search, but that determination takes time, and is often made without an ideal level of information.

As the number of personal identifiers increases, the number of possible persons decreases

The noise in a nat-crim search can be attributed to several sources, but primarily comes down to a lack of matching criteria.  Many records in national criminal searches contain only a name and a location; some may include a year of birth. In a nation where hundreds of “Timothy Jones” are born every year, these traditional methods of matching applicant information to potential records can appear inadequate.

Nat-crim providers should come up with new ways to increase their confidence that a returned record is or is not a positive match.

Opportunity 2: Locating Records Outside of Counties of Work and Residence

When a national criminal search reveals pointers to potential criminal activity in counties outside of known residences and jobs, CRAs must make a determination on whether to order a county-crim search in those jurisdictions. Because these “far away” records may have matched only on a year of birth and/or name, most background screeners wisely choose to discard these records. The likelihood of a record on the other side of the country matching the candidate is low (far more likely is that the record belongs to a person with the same name and/or year of birth). Additionally, the cost of ordering county criminal searches in each of those jurisdictions would significantly increase the cost and timeliness of the check.

Innovation that increases the coverage of  searches without adding to the noise is a key opportunity to increase the overall effectiveness of a nat-crim search.

This approach is widely practiced, but it does leave an element of risk involved: what if the candidate committed a serious crime in a location where they never lived or worked?

The only realistic way for the geographic scope of the background check to grow is for nat-crim providers to provide more and better data about these pointers.  Innovation that increases the coverage of nat-crim searches without adding to the noise is a key opportunity to increase the overall effectiveness of a nat-crim search.

Opportunity 3: Improving efficiency and lowering costs for CRAs

Because the national criminal search is an element of almost every background check, innovations in the space can have a significant impact on CRA’s workflow and operations.

Screeners can directly and immediately benefit from a national criminal search providing greater information about the returned records. A combination of providing more personal identifiers on returned records, providing a confidence score about the likelihood of a match, eliminating bad returned records, and increasing the number of filters CRAs can use to customize searches will make the overall screening workflow more efficient and effective.

Employers say they'd most like to see their background check providers improve timeliness and cost.

Improvements such as these will save CRAs and their customers time and money. Background screeners can spend less time deleting irrelevant records from nat-crim searches, and they can also reduce the number of county-crim searches that turn up no records. Each of these directly impact employers’ two biggest wishes for their background screening provider. According to a PreemploymentDirectory.com survey, timeliness and cost are the two challenges customers would most like to see corrected.

To continue growing as an industry, providers in the background screening industry need to look beyond the traditional approaches to improving data sets and screening workflows. New data sources, improved data management, creative problem solving, and cutting-edge technology all can change the screening supply chain for the better. Now it’s time to step up to the plate.

Tim Brothers, Vice President


Tim Brothers, Vice President

Tim Brothers directs product strategy for Appriss Insights’ Risk Intelligence solutions. He brings 25 years of industry experience, serving the CRA, mortgage reporting, consumer credit, tenant, and employment screening markets. Tim is a lifelong resident of Louisville, KY, and a graduate of Bellarmine University. He is also a working musician and recording engineer, a fly-fisherman, and backpacker. Tim and his wife, Kelly, have a 15-year old daughter, Elizabeth.

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