The Facts to Know About Crimes and Criminal Records

Examining someone’s criminal history is integral to the hiring process. Hiring managers and others involved in the process should understand key facts and concepts to do this important job well. The fundamental nature of crimes and criminal records is the ideal starting point. One can’t evaluate a background check without first understanding what those record checks report. Here’s a helpful overview of what you should know.

What is crime?

Crime is an act or omission that the law makes punishable. It can also be a breach of a legal duty. Both can be the subject matter of a criminal proceeding. Common law recognizes two classes of crimes. These include more serious crimes, felonies, misdemeanors, or minor crimes. States may further classify wrongdoing into more detailed categories within these groups.

Breaking the law is not always a criminal matter. Sometimes it can be a civil matter resolved in separate courts. Non-criminal violations may also be called infractions. Functionally, the vital element is that the state punishes crimes with fines, jail time, and other tools.

Consider the categories of offenses to know.


An infraction is usually a violation of specific state laws, but it is more commonly a contravention of local laws or ordinances. These transgressions are rarely considered in the same class as other crimes and don’t result in jail time. Instead, they usually require a fine or community service. Infractions often include minor traffic violations, such as a parking ticket. Public nuisance offenses are infractions in some states but misdemeanors in others.

Misdemeanor crimes

The law usually considers less serious criminal offenses to be misdemeanors, which may involve punishments such as fines or jail time. Most states do not require more than one year of jail time for misdemeanors, but some states may raise that threshold to two or even five years.

Typical misdemeanors include petty theft, battery, and disorderly conduct. Drunk driving without injury to others and serious traffic violations may also be misdemeanors. Some misconduct allows prosecutors to charge misdemeanors as felonies depending on the circumstances. Those sentenced to incarceration usually serve in a county jail rather than a state facility. Probation is also a common outcome for first or minor offenses.

Felony crimes

A felony crime is a more serious breach of the law and includes crimes the government wants to prevent, such as murder. Prison terms may range from a year to a life sentence. Some felonies may even warrant the death penalty.

Felonies include crimes such as sexual assault, grand theft, domestic violence, and arson. Felony criminal convictions usually require serving time at a state correctional facility. In rare cases, a felony sentence may be less than one year based on circumstances and the law. Felonies are the most severe red flags on a criminal background check.

What is a criminal record?

A criminal record is an official document related to an individual’s contact with law enforcement agencies. It can also refer to an individual’s entire criminal history. Records of crimes may include details about many events. These can include:

  • Arrests
  • Convictions
  • Post-conviction sentencing
  • Parole violations
  • Dismissals and acquittals

Criminal records may contain information about an individual’s physical attributes and aliases. They also typically include a date of birth. No single repository collects all criminal records about those convicted of a crime. Instead, records exist in many different local, state, and federal systems.

Are criminal records public information?

Yes. Criminal cases are part of the public record as a matter of transparency and safety. Because these records are public, they do not contain all information. For example, no criminal record includes a Social Security number. Because they are public records, anyone can review them. However, there are laws to follow before using these records for employment decisions. Legislation such as the Fair Credit Reporting Act sets the rules for how employers can use a person’s criminal record.

What are State Criminal Records?

Many criminal records originate at the local city or county level. However, some states have central repositories for collecting all county data in one place. Crimes charged and prosecuted by the state also reside in a criminal record database. In most states, there are two organizations responsible for these repositories. One is the Administrative Office of the Court, and Departments of Corrections also often handle criminal records for inmates and those released.

Though every county should report to state repositories, gaps can occur. Funding and time are often issues that lead to slow updates. At, we regularly update our database with information from state repository sources. We also add local county records wherever possible to provide the most in-depth and latest point of view.

What are Federal Criminal Records?

Violations of United States federal law can also be a crime. Such violations are often grave felonies. Drug trafficking or crimes that cross state borders are good examples. Federal courts operate independently and separately from state courts. As such, federal criminal records don’t exist in a state repository or a county court. A person may face similar charges at both the state and federal level. You’ll need a separate federal criminal background check to look for these records.

What does the criminal record indicate regarding the outcome of a charge?

Apart from the crime committed, information about the outcome or disposition of a case also appears on criminal records. This factor is critical when evaluating a job application where you discover a criminal record. Doing so helps determine how much bearing it should have on a potential job.

There are several types of outcomes you may see on a criminal record.


A pending criminal charge hasn’t been resolved. The case remains before the courts. A charge might appear as pending on criminal background checks if a trial hasn’t concluded. Pending charges aren’t evidence of guilt and employers should be wary about using them to dismiss applicants.


An acquittal means the individual was found not guilty. A judge or jury may render this verdict. Prosecutors must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If they cannot, the defendant should receive a finding of not guilty. Acquittals may occur due to a lack of evidence or exonerating information.


A conviction is the outcome of a guilty plea or trial in which a jury declares the defendant guilty. Convictions are evidence that the defendant committed the crime in question. Sentencing follows a conviction. These are the most relevant criminal records for employers to consider.


A dismissed case is one the courts declined to pursue. Dismissals occur for many reasons. Prosecutors may not believe they have enough evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. A record of “nolle pros” indicates that prosecutors declined to press on with their case. At other times, a judge may dismiss a case for lack of evidence. Procedural issues may also merit a dismissal. This status is not evidence of a crime or guilt.

Diversion or Deferred Adjudication

Many states would prefer to keep individuals out of jails and prisons. For some offenses, diversionary programs exist. These are often resources for first-time offenders. Deferred adjudication is a status that means the prosecution has been put on hold. The individual must meet specific requirements, such as completing community service or rehab. If they succeed, they can avoid a formal criminal conviction.

Learn More About Criminal Records

Understanding crimes and criminal records is critical to developing a safe hiring process. At, we make navigating this effort simple for individuals and employers. Job applicants can order their own background report to understand what employers may see during hiring. For businesses, explore our reporting products—and our in-depth educational resources. With these tools, you can refine your approach to safe hiring.

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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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