Criminal record checks have been woven into the fabric of everyday business in the United States. They are conducted for employment, occupational licensing, government clearance, adoption, immigration, travel visas and even some volunteer work.
As much as they have become a part of ordinary life, they are widely misunderstood. In short, there is no simple way to conduct a comprehensive criminal search. As we have written about before, the term “nationwide criminal record check” is a complete misnomer.
There are several ways to conduct a criminal background check like an expert, but the most effective way to do this is to search the local court in each jurisdiction in which an individual has lived or worked.
However, this poses a few problems — for example, if the person was arrested in a neighboring county while attending a Phish concert, the record may never be found.
Official State Repositories
To combat this issue, one step that we strongly recommended is to conduct a statewide criminal record check through an official state repository, which provides access to criminal records throughout the state.
Each state has its own process for conducting a criminal record check. Some states have records available online, while some searches can be conducted through “snail” mail.
Other states either do not have a system at all or restrict access. What’s more, every state has its own criteria for the data they make available to the public.
State Criminal Background Check Map
Last year, we started a project to identify all the states that have a publicly available system for conducting statewide criminal record checks. The goal was to identify official state repositories that have public criminal records available online and open to the public.
(When we say “public,” we mean that there are no restrictions on who can access the information.)
For the purposes of our research, we were interested only in official state repositories run by a state government agency with a public system and absolutely no restrictions — i.e., anyone can request a search. We did not consider third parties selling information.
Some states have systems for conducting statewide criminal record checks, but only on a limited basis (i.e., for employment purposes, etc.) or only with the permission of the person being researched.
Using this criteria, we found that 24 states that provide a way to conduct a statewide criminal record check.
States with Online Records
We found 20 states that have a system for conducting a criminal record check online: Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Vermont and Washington.
States with “Offline” Records
Additionally, there are five states where you can conduct a criminal record check by mail: Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois and Oklahoma.
Not All Criminal Record Information Is Created Equal
In conducting our research, we learned quite a bit about how each state handles criminal record requests:
States Have Different Policies
Every state has its own laws and statutes governing how criminal record checks are handled and what information is available to the public. Some states may provide convictions, other states may provide convictions and arrests, while still others may include only felonies or only felonies and misdemeanors. Some states consider driving while intoxicated to be a misdemeanor or felony, while other states consider it a traffic violation or infraction and do not include it in their criminal databases.
Different Governing Bodies Oversee the Records
Each state has a different governing body overseeing its criminal record repositories. The governing bodies may include the State Police, the Department of Criminal Justice, the Bureau of Investigation, the Court Administration, the State Technology Department or the Division of Criminal Services.
How Far Back Do the Records Go?
It was critical to understand when the states started collecting criminal records. We found that many of the state websites did not provide any information with respect to how far back the records go. Ultimately, with a lot of effort and phone calls, we were able to provide at least an approximate date as to how far back the individual states’ criminal record repositories go. Some states, such as Colorado, Florida and Indiana, have records going back to the 1930s, while other states, such as Washington, go back only to the 1990s.
Reliability of Repositories
We wanted to see how reliable each state’s criminal record databases are, and we wanted to know the sources of each state’s information. Most states do not provide the sources of the information contained in their databases, other than to say that the records were from “criminal justice agencies.” This is a critical point, as the reliability of some of the criminal record repositories has come into question.
State criminal record checks, even within an official government repository, are not the be-all and end-all. We strongly recommended utilizing other sources in addition to the statewide criminal repository.
Websites Are a Confusing Mess
Finding the information on state websites was a challenge. Most of these are confusing, written in legalese and citing statutes and ordinances that would mean little to the layperson. Deciphering what criminal record data is available is not always clear. Nevertheless, each state on the State Criminal Background Check Map has a link to the respective state’s website for more information on how to obtain criminal records for that state. If you are confused, we suggest calling the state’s offices directly.
The cost for criminal records varies widely from state to state. The least expensive was $3 per search in Texas, and the most expensive was $65 per search in New York. The price is listed for each state on the Criminal Records Map.
Lastly, although this is stated on nearly every website that we reviewed, it’s worth repeating: each state repository holds ONLY its own records. If you are searching the state of Washington website, you will find only records from Washington. If a person is charged with a felony in neighboring Oregon, that will not show up in the Washington database.