Audit Reveals Shortcomings in the Washington State Criminal History Database

By Michael Klazema on 8/7/2015
The Washington State Auditor's Office recently took a look at the state's repository for criminal history information, and the findings were not positive. The audit found that thousands of dispositions were missing from the system, a fact that may have led employers throughout the state to hire people they otherwise would have disqualified from consideration.

The core findings of the audit came from comparing the Washington State Identification Systems (WASIS) with the state's Judicial Information System. WASIS is the state criminal history repository, a database operated by the State Patrol. The Judicial Information System, meanwhile, is a database where outcomes of court cases, including convictions are entered.

The Auditor's Office found that roughly a third of dispositions from the sample year 2012 were missing from WASIS. The court decisions were entered into the Judicial Information System, but were not ultimately entered into the WASIS database. Therefore, since WASIS is what some employers use to run background checks of applicants, many convictions could have gone overlooked as a result of the oversight.

So what went wrong? For cases that don't go to court, the responsibility for sending criminal conviction information to WASIS falls on the shoulders of prosecutors or law enforcement agencies. When cases do go court, though, outcomes are entered into the Judicial Information System, which is supposed to automatically send convictions and other information to WASIS. However, due to a flaw in the system, the Judicial Information System will only forward dispositions to WASIS if a unique Process Control Number is assigned to the case. If a court forgets the number, then it's like they never handed down a conviction, at least in the eyes of WASIS.

Just looking at 2012 as a sample year, the impact of this system flaw is overwhelming. In that year alone, some 54,500 dispositions never made it to WASIS. 28,000 of those involved convictions "for harassment, child molestation,and domestic violence", all convictions that can potentially disqualify applicants for jobs. WASIS was also missing information on an additional 4,611 individuals convicted of felonies. Of those 4,611, 462 had been charged with "murder, robbery, aggravated assault, and rape."

This situation highlights one of the pitfalls of solely relying on state repositories for purposes of criminal background checks. Sure, state criminal databases can be a great way to widen the safety net provided by background checks. In a perfect world, these databases would include every criminal conviction from every county in the state. Unfortunately, these repositories are not always up-to-date, and relying on them exclusively can lead to gaps in background checks. Since most criminal charges and convictions are handled on the local level, county criminal history checks remain the most thorough types of criminal background checks available.


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