July 08, 2006
Don't depend on DPS for your background checks

Nice article in the Press on the crappy database that DPS provides to the public for criminal background checks. Executive summary: Since counties are responsible for providing their data to the DPS and most of them are extremely laggard about it, lots of arrests and convictions are not there. There's also a lot of bad information, especially in cases of deferred adjudication. And much of this crappy data gets dispersed into commercial background check services, where fixing errors is next to impossible.

Two items of interest. One, Scott Henson gets some good quotage:

"The database is corrupt and a piece of garbage," says Scott Henson, a political consultant in Austin. "The thing has just turned into its own animal."


"People need to be able to get jobs at some point," says Scott Henson, whose blog, Grits for Breakfast, deals exclusively with the Texas criminal justice system. "Would you prefer they robbed your house?"

Henson thinks far too many jobs are restricted based on criminal history. He's concerned about a 2006 report from the State Auditor's Office that looked at a sample of agencies and found that 26 percent of them had given access to folks who weren't allowed to look at the DPS's secure site.

"It's one thing to run a check and say, 'Has someone been convicted?' " he says. "What this database does is say, 'Have you been arrested?' "

You can get arrested for just about anything. Being found guilty is a whole other matter, and for this reason the state restricts those who can look at arrest records. Unauthorized access only increases the chance of folks being passed over based on their backgrounds, says Henson.

"People's lives are on the line," he says, "and decisions about whether they can find employment and whether they can access services are based on these databases that are completely out of control and that have grown both in their size and in the types of uses for them beyond what anyone envisioned when they were first created."

And everybody's favorite data-losing credit check company makes an appearance:

Kenneth Schustereit knows all about being denied employment because of a background check.

Thirty-two years ago, he got busted picking up what he thought was scrap metal from a parking lot in Victoria. He had hoped to make nine bucks from the sale of the scrap but ended up getting charged with felony theft. The charge was later dropped to a misdemeanor and he spent 51 days in jail the summer before his senior year.

Life went on. Schustereit joined the Army National Guard and the Army Reserve. He became an electrician. He got involved in local politics. But when he applied for a job at The Home Depot in 2001, he was told he couldn't be hired on account of what was on his background.

ChoicePoint, an Atlanta-based data company, had reported his misdemeanor as a felony and told The Home Depot he'd served seven years in prison. ChoicePoint says it got the bad data from the Texas DPS; the department admits it had Schustereit's conviction misclassified, but "the seven-year prison stint was not of our doing," says Lesko. "It is not reflected anywhere in our records."

By the time Schustereit got ahold of his original disposition, The Home Depot had already found someone else for the job.

"I've got two honorable discharges and a service citation for serving my country," says Schustereit, "and they won't let me sell wire nuts to the public at Home Depot." He says he fell into a depression after the incident, further compounded by a thyroid problem that went untreated because of a lack of insurance. "It's just been very hard on me."

Over the past three years, the DPS reports more than a quarter-million dollars in revenue from the sale of criminal histories to third-party vendors such as ChoicePoint. The DPS knows these records are incomplete, but it passes them along anyway. These data are then mixed with records from other sources, often being grouped solely on the basis of a name rather than a fingerprint match, and third-party vendors sell the information to employers and landlords, promising a more thorough check than the competition.

So there you have it. Be sure you never get wrongly arrested for anything if you like being able to get a job or rent an apartment. Sort of adds a little extra urgency to the plight of those kids in Round Rock and Sugar Land, doesn't it?

UPDATE: Scott comments, and notes that this story had its genesis in an earlier posting of his. Another example of blogs driving original reporting, for those of you keeping score at home.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on July 08, 2006 to Crime and Punishment | TrackBack

Well, I don't know that my blog post was the "genesis" of his story - we both could have been reacting to a state auditors report released in February. The blog post was why he called me, though. Best,

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast on July 10, 2006 6:34 AM