How Incarceration Data Contributes to Better Background Screens

Pre-hire background checks are a best practice for businesses, volunteer organizations, churches, schools, and any other organization that recruits and manages a workforce. Today, they are an almost ubiquitous step in the hiring process. According to a 2017 study from and the National Association of Professional Background Screeners, 96% of U.S. employers conduct at least one type of pre-hire background screen.

In this Article: 

Typical Background Screen Process

Adding Incarceration Data

Innovation Needed

Despite background screening experiencing massive growth over the past decade and becoming a standard step in the hiring process, the underlying process and product hasn’t changed much.

Background screening companies should be looking for opportunities to enhance existing solutions and innovate. Expanding their criminal justice data set is one way consumer reporting agencies (CRAs) can improve the quality and timeliness of their background screens. Criminal justice data may include arrest data, incarceration activity, court case records, and records from other government sources.

Let’s look at how incarceration data, such as booking and release activity, can improve the quality of a background screen.

The Typical Background Screen Process


Most background checks begin with an “SSN Trace” using the candidate’s provided social security number (SSN). This process involves searching for the candidate’s SSN against various databases that include credit header information. The credit header file consists of the non-financial identification information for a given identification. It is compiled from a variety of sources, such as utility bills, bank statements, credit card applications, magazine subscriptions, and car loan applications.

The SSN Trace helps verify and identify the addresses and aliases given by the candidate when consenting to the background check, while simultaneously providing the CRA additional addresses and aliases associated with the candidate over the past seven years.

Typically, an SSN Trace uncovers many addresses and an average of two to three relevant counties per person. These data sets can be a reliable source of person information, despite being inconsistent.

SSN Traces often rely on messy data. As a person’s financial history becomes more complex (e.g. frequent moves, co-signing with children on student loan applications, etc.), the SSN Trace can become less reliable.  However, this data is only used to point the screening company to the proper source for a criminal record check and never used to make any other decisions or judgments on the subject.

Flowchart showing the process of a standard background screen


Following the SSN Trace, the CRA then runs the candidate’s name, aliases, and other personally identifiable information (PII) against a national criminal file. This “nat-crim” data set helps the CRA uncover the individual’s possible previous interactions with the criminal justice system. Some CRAs assemble and maintain their own proprietary nat-crim file; other CRAs work with third-party data providers during this step.

Nat-crim files can provide additional county/counties relevant to a person that the SSN Trace doesn’t uncover.

Nat-crim files are beneficial because they provide pointers into potential criminal activity in locations not tied to a person’s residence or work. However, nat-crim files aren’t as comprehensive as their name suggests. They typically hold only about 10% of the existing criminal data in the United States.

Put another way, if you put 1000 random Americans with a known misdemeanor or felony in a room and ran a nat-crim search on them, the search would miss 900 of those records.


Ultimately, both the SSN Trace and the nat-crim search provide CRAs with a list of locations relevant to an individual’s current and previous residence(s), work, travel, and interaction with the criminal justice system. These locations are consolidated into a list of jurisdictions (typically counties or large metros) in which the CRA will conduct direct court searches to discover potential criminal activity.

Some county courts have online portals where the CRA can manually search for records associated with an individual. Many still require a person (usually called a “court runner”) to visit the courthouse in person and request relevant records from the county clerk.

The results of these direct court searches are what appear on the final background screen report shared with employers and candidates.

Adding Incarceration Data into the Background Screen

National incarceration data greatly improves the effectiveness of a standard background screen.

Appriss Insights' incarceration data set differs from traditional nat-crim data because it offers a growing collection of more than 160 million booking records from county jails and state prisons. Nat-crim files rarely contain county-level incarceration data.

Appriss Insights' incarceration data provides benefits a traditional background screen does not have:

  • Greater coverage than nat-crim files due to data interfaces with 2,500+ jails and prisons
  • A longer history, reaching further back than both the SSN Trace and nat-crim data sets
  • Booking and release activity updated in near real-time

Due to its broader coverage and better timeliness, CRAs run candidates against Appriss incarceration data during the first phase of a background screen, alongside the SSN Trace and nat-crim search.

Flowchart of the Background Screen Process with Incarceration Data included alongside a "nat-crim" search

The addition of incarceration data provides a significant lift in the total number of locations relevant to the applicant. By adding Appriss Insights’ nationwide incarceration data into their pre-hire background screening process, CRAs typically see between a 10% and 20% increase in additional jurisdictions to investigate.

In addition to providing more investigative revenue to CRAs, better incarceration data helps uncover more potential criminal activity from applicants. Ultimately, this means better background screens to reduce employee insider risk, protect consumers from becoming victims of crime, and ensure safer workplaces and communities.

Innovation Needed

In the past few years, I have regularly pushed for more innovation in the background screening industry. With a few notable exceptions, CRAs are sticking to the same processes and products they have for years.

CRAs can position themselves for success in the coming years by expanding and improving their background screening data sources. Incorporating national incarceration data into the background screen is an important step forward.

While incarceration data certainly helps CRAs grow their businesses, it also serves a more important purpose: advancing the fundamental and founding mission of our industry – keeping customers, employees and communities safe.

Jason Morris, Founder, Morris Group Consulting LLC


Jason Morris, Founder, Morris Group Consulting LLC

A veteran screening and risk management professional, Jason Morris founded the Cleveland-based EmployeeScreenIQ, a global leader in employment screening, in 1999. Morris served as the EmployeeScreenIQ’sPresident and Chief Operating Officer until November of 2015, when the company was acquired by Sterling Talent Solutions. Morris went on to serve as Sterling Talent Solutions’ Senior Vice President of Client Success and was a member of its M&A team until October 2017. Morris served as the Co-Chairman of National Association of Professional Background Screeners (NAPBS) from 2005-2006, making frequent presentations to government agencies, including members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. He has also lobbied on behalf of the screening industry and has consulted with officials from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the U.S. Department of Justice. Morris continues to be active in the organization today. Morris frequently serves as an expert witness on the topics of background checks, employment screening, human resources and the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). He is also a licensed private investigator in the states of Ohio, Illinois, New Jersey, Texas, Arizona and Nevada. Morris is a graduate of Kent State University and currently lives in Cleveland, Ohio with his wife, two daughters and three dogs.

Other Posts By This Author