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The Problem with Criminal Records: Discrepancies between State Reports and Private-sector Background Checks

NCJ Number
Criminology Volume: Online Dated: 2024
Date Published
February 2024

This article report on their analysis of a sampling of criminal records for 101 people to determine the level of false-positive or false-negative reports that occur in the private sector; they define specific problems with private sector criminal records; and provide qualitative examples of how those errors can limit access to social opportunities.


Criminal records are routinely used by employers and other institutional decision-makers who rely on their presumed fidelity to evaluate applicants. In this paper, the authors analyze criminal records for a sample of 101 people, comparing official state reports, two sources of private-sector background checks (one regulated and one unregulated by federal law), and qualitative interviews. Based on their analysis, the authors conclude that private-sector background checks are laden with false-positive and false-negative errors: 60 percent and 50 percent of participants had at least one false-positive error on their regulated and unregulated background checks, and nearly all (90 percent and 92 percent of participants, respectively) had at least one false-negative error. The authors define specific problems with private sector criminal records: mismatched data that create false negatives; missing case dispositions that create incomplete and misleading criminal records; and incorrect data that create false positives. Accompanying qualitative interviews show how errors in background checks limit access to social opportunities ranging from employment to education to housing and violate basic principles of fairness in the legal system. (Published Abstract Provided)

Date Published: February 1, 2024