State’s criminal database missing cases

The state’s criminal history records database is incomplete, which means background checks aren’t turning up information relied upon when hiring people for positions of trust, according to an audit released last week by the state Auditor’s Office.

The 26-page report analyzed the database and court records from 2012 to see whether they matched up. They did not in 81,200 instances, or 33 percent of the time, the performance audit shows.

“Dispositions were missing for thousands of people for offenses that would disqualify them from jobs and volunteer positions with vulnerable populations,” the report states.

The missing information also could affect charging and sentencing decisions in criminal cases, criminal investigations and hiring decisions.

The Washington State Patrol maintains the database but local law enforcement agencies, county clerks and courts are responsible for sending information about their arrests for felonies and gross misdemeanors and outcomes of the cases.

Although 90 percent of the missing data was for gross misdemeanors such as driving under the influence, auditors said they found 462 missing felony convictions for murder, robbery, rape and aggravated assault.

The audit checked 245,776 dispositions from 2012 and found the database was missing 81,200 case outcomes belonging to 54,462 people.

More than half of those people were convicted of offenses such as child molestation, harassment or domestic violence, crimes that potentially would disqualify them from many job or volunteer positions.

“The result is people with criminal convictions may obtain licenses and employment they should not have, or people with acquittals or dismissals may be unfairly denied license and employment,” according to the audit.

The main reason information isn’t making it into the database, known as the Washington State Identification System, was traced back to fingerprints.

State law says police do not have to take fingerprints from someone suspected of a gross misdemeanor if the person is not arrested.

The problem is, if fingerprints aren’t taken, the identification number known as the Process Control Number that automatically sends information about the case to the database isn’t created.

The audit also notes that local law enforcement officers and court clerks don’t always manually input data and the State Patrol has no authority to make them.

The Auditor’s Office recommended six improvements the State Patrol could make to increase completeness and effectiveness for the database. They range from lobbying for changes to the fingerprinting law to offering better guidance to local agencies entrusted with inputting case information.

In a June 11 letter responding to the audit, State Patrol Chief John Batiste said his agency was working on some of the recommendations before the audit was conducted.

He also pointed out that the database relies on hundreds of criminal justice workers.

“We strongly believe that other law enforcement agencies, prosecutors and the courts share a responsibility for ensuring the accuracy and completeness of these records,” Batiste wrote.

It wasn’t a surprise for many officials that the database is incomplete. Audits conducted in 2012 and 2014 found issues with criminal history records, most of which stemmed from lack of fingerprinting and confusion among local agencies.

“State law requires them to send criminal history record information for felonies and gross misdemeanors to the Patrol, but because so many agencies are involved, each with its own processes and procedures, opportunities for missing information may occur,” the report states.

Batiste said his department began working in 2013 with local agencies to increase accuracy in reporting arrests and case dispositions. The State Patrol also regularly sends people to speak at court clerk conferences about criminal history records requirements.

Making legislative changes, such as requiring all people arrested for gross misdemeanors to be fingerprinted, would have “significant workload and fiscal impacts on law enforcement agencies and jails,” the State Patrol said.

The agency is putting together a work group with the Washington Association of Sheriffs & Police Chiefs and the Administrative Office of the Courts to discuss the possibility of proposing new legislation.

Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653