Some States Enact New Fingerprint Background Check Laws

Background checks are seen across many industries as a key tool in protecting businesses and enabling organizations to keep those under their supervision safe. However, not all background checks work in the same way or search the same sets of records—which can be a source of confusion. Sometimes, the name of a background check can make the process sound more comprehensive than it is. While that doesn't diminish their usefulness, it does warrant a closer look.

Recently, Washington and a school district in North Carolina changed official policies, requiring fingerprint background checks as a condition of employment. In North Carolina, the change was implemented for new hires only and comes on the heels of a serious scandal surrounding multiple allegations of sexual abuse by those employed in the district. Although state legislators attempted to enact a law mandating those checks broadly, they could not make progress.

However, Washington state has mandated fingerprint background checks for all individuals working in early learning centers and childcare. Most importantly, the Washington rule also requires all current employees to submit to a fingerprint check. The state government will cover the costs for the program’s first year to facilitate a smooth transition to a safer setting.

Will these background checks make a difference?

It's possible—they are still a useful tool, after all, much like Social Security number background screening processes. However, fingerprint checks have some limitations similar to SSN checks, which are most helpful in verifying identities rather than checking criminal records.

Fingerprint-based checks most often rely on records maintained by the FBI in a fingerprint database known as IAFIS (Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System). Estimates peg the number of records held in this database to be about 70 million—but that's only a fraction of the hundreds of millions of general criminal records held by states nationwide. Those 70 million records are also often tied only to arrest records, not actual convictions, making adjudicating a hiring decision more difficult. 

Even so, their use in childcare and educational settings can make sense. Detecting red flags at any point in the hiring process is crucial, and adding a fingerprint process provides an additional layer of security. However, for these new policies in Washington and North Carolina to be more successful, they should continue to include a broader look at criminal records.

Why? Not every arrest generates fingerprint records—and sometimes police departments never actually file those fingerprints with IAFIS, even if the individual is later convicted. As a result, relying solely on a fingerprint check is a mistake because of the perception of greater detail. Safeguarding children in schools is critical, and many tools are at our disposal today. The smart way forward is a comprehensive approach that uses all the best solutions available.

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Michael Klazema

About Michael Klazema The author

Michael Klazema is the lead author and editor for Dallas-based with a focus on human resource and employment screening developments

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