Demand for criminal background checks at record level in R.I.***
Kris Craig/The Providence Journal - October 19, 2013 11:15 PM
Stephanie Tungate, a staff member in the attorney general's office, demonstrates how fingerprints are scanned and electronically taken when getting a background check. She was set up at the Middletown Police Department, one of eight locations where BCI checks were recently done.
By MARK REYNOLDS
Journal Staff Writer
PROVIDENCE — Demand for criminal background checks has never been higher in Rhode Island.
Want to work as a massage therapist, schoolteacher, motorcycling instructor or caretaker in a nursing home? Need to bring your family to a homeless shelter?
If the answer is yes, you'll need to visit a police department or the attorney general's office on South Main Street, where employees in the Bureau of Criminal Identification will search in-state criminal history information and may also connect with the National Crime Information Center.
But don't be surprised if a few people are already in line.
With each new General Assembly session, legislators pass a new law that expands the licensing criteria of one profession or another to require a criminal background check.
In 2011, the legislature applied the requirement to municipal recreation department employees and volunteers, who are not licensed.
This year, the same requirement has been extended to all school volunteers.
At the outset of the school year, the new requirement fueled the heaviest volume of background checks ever experienced at the attorney general's office, according to clerks. The BCI unit took the unusual step of deploying staff to various police stations around the state to help meet the demand.
Employers in the private sector also ask job applicants for criminal background information much more often than they did in the past.
Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin, a believer in the value of criminal-history information, sees no reason to take any action, legislatively or otherwise, to reduce the number of people seeking background checks.
Background checks help employers protect vulnerable populations, such as children and the elderly, from exposure to felons, Kilmartin says.
The Bureau of Criminal Identification tallied 46,238 checks during the first eight months of 2013, when volume increased steadily from the previous year.
Overall, the statistics for the past few years show the volume of BCI checks for which a fee was collected at the attorney general's office rising from 57,015 in 2010 to 65,378 in 2011 to 74,231 in 2012.
Each of those yearly totals excludes BCI checks that the office performed without collecting the $5 fee — for example, background checks performed for witnesses whom prosecutors call to testify in criminal trials.
The tally also excludes courtesy checks that the office provides for people who are older than 62, in the military, disabled or needing to reside at a homeless shelter or a domestic-violence shelter. The number does not encompass checks requested by people who walk into local police departments or request a BCI check through the state police.
Demand for the more expansive nationwide NCIC background check is up, too.
Based on revenue from the $35 fee for an NCIC check, the attorney general's office estimated about 14,428 NCIC civilian inquiries in 2012 and 11,544 in just the first eight months of 2013. Most of the state statutes that mandate background checks for particular licenses or jobs call for the NCIC check, not the more limited BCI check, which deals only with Rhode Island convictions for misdemeanors or felonies.
Over time, requiring background checks has gained popularity among employers in the private sector to gain more information about job applicants, says Karyn Rhodes, a consultant with the Cornerstone Group, which advises employers on hiring practices.
"I would say more and more employers think it's important to understand someone's background before they hire them," Rhodes says.
In certain situations, employers can incur legal liability if they hire someone with a criminal record who then hurts a coworker, Rhodes says.
But they can also incur liability by rejecting job applicants on the basis of criminal background.
Last year, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission updated guidance to "help employers better assess the impact of using criminal records in employment decisions."
For example, an employer's hiring can run afoul of federal law if job applicants of a particular race or national origin are disproportionately excluded from hiring based on their criminal records. By law, the employer must show that the exclusions are "job related and consistent with business necessity."
In part, the rationale for the update was based on the relative ease of obtaining criminal history information and the greater number of people who have criminal records.
A new Rhode Island law that takes effect on Jan. 1, 2014, restrains many employers from automatically disqualifying someone for a job solely on the basis of a criminal record.
But once a company has considered an applicant's job skills, it can move on to disqualify the same applicant due to his or her criminal record, Rhodes says.
Both Rhodes and Kilmartin warn employers not to give too much credence to the Rhode Island criminal background check, which is used far more frequently than the NCIC check, because the BCI check doesn't reveal a record outside of Rhode Island.
"Just because I don't have a record in Rhode Island does not mean that I'm a plaster saint," Kilmartin says.
Also, someone might have a clean record when he or she is hired, but that's no guarantee it will stay that way.
Under Rhode Island law, for example, a teacher is only subject to the NCIC check before he or she is hired.
Kilmartin's office says a computer upgrade due by August will allow for the use of technology that can alert staff when someone is arrested or convicted following a background check that revealed no convictions.
The unit would need specific legislative approval to make use of such information for notification purposes.
The Bureau of Criminal Identification is the central repository for all "descriptive and demographic" information on people convicted of misdemeanors and felonies in Rhode Island.
It maintains more than 1.1 million individual criminal-history records, including arrests.
Rhode Island law allows first offenders to have their criminal record "expunged" — wiped clean — five years after completion of asentence for a misdemeanor and 10 years after completion of a sentence for a felony. The law does not allow expungement of records in crimes of violence, such as sexual assault, or for various other offenses, such as larceny.
Over the past few weeks, Elaine Langella and her fellow clerks at the attorney general's office have carried out hundreds of checks on each shift.
On one recent day, the clerks collected $3,180 for performing about 635 checks.
Langella says that 80 checks a day were a heavy load when she started out in the office about 14 years ago. Now, that's her average workload just at the office window, where checks are handled for the public. Away from the window, clerks also handle checks requested by mail and checks requested by police and prosecutors.
The unit, staffed with about 16 employees under the leadership of BCI Chief William Karalis, is performing about 300 checks per day on average, says Kilmartin.
The typical BCI check takes a clerk a couple of minutes.
They enter the person's driver's license number into a computer, which prepares and prints an official document, which is then stamped and signed like a passport. The document either reflects no conviction record or, if there is a criminal history, the stamp is applied to each page with a label that says "RECORD."
The process for the more comprehensive NCIC check, using the FBI's fingerprint database, takes about 20 minutes.
The unit provides the NCIC check only for employees or job applicants who are required to have that type of background check under state law. On the day of the check, the office notifies the person that it has performed the service.
Later on, the office notifies the person by mail if it finds a criminal conviction that disqualifies the person from the particular job. A range of convictions, from murder to larceny, are "disqualifying" under Rhode Island law.
The office also directly notifies the employer that the applicant or employee has a disqualifying criminal record, but without specifying the record. For some jobs, the person remains hirable if he or she asks the unit to inform the employer of the specific offense.
The BCI unit handles an array of other responsibilities, including paperwork for arrest warrants and no-contact orders.
"They are an extremely busy unit," says Kilmartin, who is considering adding one or two more employees, although he also says, "We're getting the job done and we're getting it done efficiently."
Every once in a while, someone comes in for a background check and a clerk discovers that authorities either in Rhode Island or somewhere else around the country have issued a warrant for his or her arrest.
In 2012, 165 people were arrested when they went to the BCI office hoping for a printout showing a clean record.
Langella and her colleagues have secret procedures to keep each other in the loop when an arrest is about to take place. And when it happens to someone requesting a check on a Friday afternoon, that person may end up spending the weekend in jail.