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AP IMPACT: When your criminal past isn’t yours
Question of the Day
“There’s very little human judgment,” says Sharon Dietrich, an attorney with Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, a law firm focused on poorer clients. Dietrich represents victims of inaccurate background checks. “They don’t seem to have much incentive to get it right.”
Dietrich says her firm fields about twice as many complaints about inaccurate background checks as it did five years ago.
The mix-ups can start with a mistake entered into the logs of a law enforcement agency or a court file. The biggest culprits, though, are companies that compile databases using public information.
In some instances, their automated formulas misinterpret the information provided them. Other times, as Casey discovered, records wind up assigned to the wrong people with a common name.
Another common problem: When a government agency erases a criminal conviction after a designated period of good behavior, many of the commercial databases don’t perform the updates required to purge offenses that have been wiped out from public record.
It hasn’t helped that dozens of databases are now run by mom-and-pop businesses with limited resources to monitor the accuracy of the records.
The industry of providing background checks has been growing to meet the rising demand for the service. In the 1990s, about half of employers said they checked backgrounds. In the decade since Sept. 11, that figure has grown to more than 90 percent, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.
To take advantage of the growing number of businesses willing to pay for background checks, hundreds of companies have dispatched computer programs to scour the Internet for free court data.
But those data do not always tell the full story.
Gina Marie Haynes had just moved from Philadelphia to Texas with her boyfriend in August 2010 and lined up a job managing apartments. A background check found fraud charges, and Haynes lost the offer.
A year earlier, she had bought a used Saab, and the day she drove it off the lot, smoke started pouring from the hood. The dealer charged $291.48 for repairs. When Haynes refused to pay, the dealer filed fraud charges.
Haynes relented and paid after six months. Anyone looking at Haynes‘ physical file at the courthouse in Montgomery County, Pa., would have seen that the fraud charge had been removed. But it was still listed in the limited information on the court’s website.
The website has since been updated, but Haynes, 40, has no idea how many companies downloaded the outdated data. She has spent hours calling background check companies to see whether she is in their databases. Getting the information removed and corrected from so many different databases can be a daunting mission. Even if it’s right in one place, it can be wrong in another database unknown to an individual until a prospective employer requests information from it. By then, the damage is done.
“I want my life back,” Haynes says.
Haynes has since found work as a customer service manager, but she says that is only because her latest employer didn’t run a background check.
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