This information comes as no surprise to me. Often, clients will come to me to find out if they are eligible to expunge or seal and they’ll have with them background checks performed by these private companies. I always tell them that we can’t know for certain unless we actually pull the case information from the court records because private background check companies are notoriously inaccurate.
While the Sun-Times editorial focused on errors that reported crimes never performed by the applicant, this is only part of the problem. People can also be harmed by what the background checks don’t show. Many people will have a background check performed on themselves in order to find out if some old case can still come back to bite them. They don’t realize that every background check company will have their own processes for research and reporting. Some will look at a person’s entire criminal history, but for only the last 7 or 10 years. Others will look into a person’s entire life, but only report convictions. Others still, just felony charges. When there is no standardization, there is no telling what criminal offenses the background check companies will find. Throw in the high rate of errors and these background checks become highly unreliable.
The unreported “missing” cases can hurt people in a couple ways: (1) Any arrest can affect a person’s eligibility for an expungement or sealing, so it is important to know every single charge a person has ever received. (2) They can also lull people into a false sense of security that a case is no longer visible so there’s no need to clear it from their record. Just because it hasn’t appeared on one background check, doesn’t mean that it isn’t coming up on others.
While there are some measures in place to try to prevent employment discrimination against those with criminal records, the Sun-Times properly points out that “…in the real world, job applicants may never know why they weren’t called in for an interview. The Society for Human Resource Management says 93 percent of employers ran background checks on some applicants in 2010 and 73 percent checked all of them.” So I applaud the Chicago Sun-Times for bringing to light the injustice that this carelessness can bring.