Wanted: Accurate FBI Background Checks for Employment

At a time when millions of America’s workers continue to struggle to find work in the aftermath of the Great Recession, many face an additional barrier—faulty records released by the FBI for use in employment and licensing decisions.

Although considered the gold standard of criminal background checks, the FBI records routinely fail to report important information on the outcome of arrests, information that is often beneficial to workers subject to these reports. Given the massive proliferation of FBI background checks for employment—roughly 17 million were conducted last year—these inaccuracies have a devastating impact on workers, especially workers of color who are disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system. There is a solution to this problem that would immediately result in less job-loss and financial hardship: the FBI must ensure that records are accurate and complete prior to being released for employment and licensing decisions.

Emblematic of workers facing this additional burden is Raquel Vanderpool, a mother of two who lost the job she loved as a nurse assistant—a job she’d held for eight years—when the FBI erroneously reported that Ms. Vanderpool was convicted of a crime. In fact, the charge had been dismissed and sealed six years earlier.

Ms. Vanderpool, the other workers highlighted in this report, and the unknown thousands of others like them, do not pose a security or safety threat but nonetheless lose out on employment for one reason only: the background check produced by the FBI is inaccurate or missing critical information. As millions of workers struggle to navigate a still-challenging job market, the FBI must avoid creating wrongful barriers that cause unnecessary job loss and financial harm. Now is the time to ensure that criminal background checks with the imprimatur of the FBI are accurate and complete.

The use of FBI background checks for employment is rapidly increasing. Roughly 17 million FBI background checks were conducted for employment and licensing purposes in 2012, which is six times the number conducted a decade ago.

Key Findings:

  • Despite clear federal mandates that require the background reports to be complete and accurate, 50 percent of the FBI’s records fail to include information on the final disposition of the case. The missing information is frequently beneficial to job seekers. For example, one third of felony arrests do not result in conviction and many others are reduced to misdemeanors.
  • NELP estimates that 1.8 million workers a year are subject to FBI background checks that include faulty or incomplete information, and 600,000 of those workers may be prejudiced in their job search when the FBI reports do not include up-to-date and accurate information that would benefit them.
  • African Americans are especially disadvantaged by the faulty records because people of color are consistently arrested at rates greater than their representation in the general population, and large numbers of those arrests never lead to conviction. For example, African Americans were more than four times as likely as whites to appeal an inaccurate FBI record under the federal port worker security clearance program.
  • In conspicuous contrast to background checks for employment, the FBI searches for missing disposition information when a person seeks to purchase a gun, and the extra effort tracks down nearly two thirds of the missing information in just three days.

As detailed in this report, we recommend the following policies to reform the system and hold the FBI accountable for the records that bear its seal:

  • Enact federal legislation requiring the FBI to obtain missing disposition information before releasing background checks for employment and licensing purposes.
  • Require the FBI to check the files created under the Brady Act for missing information and accept updated records from the federal and state agencies that make suitability determinations.
  • Ensure that all federal and state employment background checks that require FBI records provide an automatic right to a copy of the rap sheet and a robust appeals process.
  • Hold the FBI accountable for enforcing the current law regulating criminal background checks for employment and licensing, and require regular reporting monitoring the impact of the current system.


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About the Authors

Maurice Emsellem

Fair Chance Program Director, National Employment Law Project