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Are Background Checks Run by State?

By Michael Klazema on 9/23/2020

One of the common points of confusion around background checks is how geography figures into the equation. Contrary to popular belief, there is not one overarching database of criminal history information for the entire country. Instead, criminal history information is scattered throughout the country in different county or federal courts and state repositories. In this post, we will take a closer look at how background checks are run—including county background checks, state background checks, and federal background checks—and at how geography can complicate a screening process. 

About the Different Types of Criminal History Checks 

Which is better: a county criminal history search or a state criminal background check? Another common assumption about background checks is that state background checks are automatically more thorough than country searches because they incorporate criminal records from the entire state rather than just one small part of it. There are 3,141 counties or county-equivalents in the United States. Compare that number to 50 states and a few associated U.S. territories, and it naturally seems as if taking a state-by-state approach to background screenings would be easier than using county background checks. 

If an employer were to consider a county approach to criminal history checks, they would likely start with ordering county searches in the counties where the candidate lives and/or works. A statewide criminal history search can be a useful way to discover crimes that the candidate may have committed outside of their immediate home/work radius. However, it is crucial to understand that most charges and convictions are filed and recorded on the county level, in county courthouses. Some counties report into state repositories regularly; some do so less frequently if they report into the repository at all. As a result, state background checks, while broader than county criminal searches, may also contain significant gaps or be out of date. 

A Note about Multijurisdictional Databases 

Sometimes, an entity will gather criminal history information from a variety of sources into a multijurisdictional database. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has one such database, as does backgroundchecks.com. These types of multijurisdictional databases can be quite large: our proprietary US OneSEARCH database includes more than 650 million criminal records from counties, departments of corrections, administrative offices of courts, and offender registries throughout the United States. However, even these databases are not truly comprehensive. Recent convictions that would show up in a county search might not be represented in a multijurisdictional database, simply because that database is not the primary spot where the information is filed. 

Do note that there is a difference between FBI background checks and federal background checks. The FBI database is not accessible to all employers. Federal background checks instead function much the same way as county criminal history searches, with the difference being that they pull US District Court indices in specific federal jurisdictions rather than searching records from county courts. 

Compiling a Thorough Background Check 

The best way to create a thorough background check, in most cases, is to compile multiple searches of several databases into the review of a candidate’s criminal history. That might mean pulling the candidate’s address history and running county criminal history searches in the places they’ve lived, or it might mean using a mix of county, state, federal, and multijurisdictional checks to cover a variety of bases. 

At backgroundchecks.com, we can help you devise an effective criminal background check solution for your organization. Contact us today to get started.


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