Up to 600,000 Job Seekers a Year Hurt by Flawed FBI Background Records

Friday, August 02, 2013
FBI operations center in New York (AP Photo)

Having one’s job prospects hinging on a background check by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) can be a dicey experience.


A new report (pdf) from the National Employment Law Project (NELP) says that up to 600,000 people a year may lose out on getting a job because the FBI’s criminal files are not complete or accurate.


For instance, a person who is arrested for a felony may have this fact in their FBI file—but if the charges were dismissed or reduced, this latter information may not be on hand with the FBI. That means a background check would reveal a job candidate was arrested for a felony, but it would not reveal to the potential employer that the person was never convicted or even went to trial.


The NELP report states that one-third of felony arrests in the U.S. are ultimately dismissed and charges are frequently reduced.


The shortcomings in FBI records can impact minorities in particular, since they are disproportionately arrested for crimes. For instance, African-Americans make up 14% of the population but account for 28% of the nation’s arrests.


“People cannot get jobs, or they’re losing their jobs, because of these defects in the FBI’s records,” Madeline Neighly, a NELP staff attorney and the report’s lead author, said in a prepared statement.


“Employers assume FBI background checks are the gold standard, but the records are unreliable. Around half of the FBI’s records are missing information on the final outcome of arrests—information that in many cases would significantly benefit workers who have turned their lives around,” Neighly said.


FBI background checks have grown in popularity since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, with a record 16.9 million of them performed in 2012. This total represented a six-fold increase since September 2001.


Members of Congress have taken steps to get the FBI’s files up to date.


Representative Bobby Scott (D-Virginia), the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, introduced a bill requiring the FBI to clean up incomplete background checks for employment in all cases.


Another measure, sponsored by Representative Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota), focuses on correcting the records for employment with the federal government and federal contractors, according to NELP.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Flawed FBI Records Threaten Work Opportunities For Hundreds of Thousands of Job Seekers (National Employment Law Project) (pdf)

Wanted: Accurate FBI Background Checks for Employment (by Madeline Neighly and Maurice Emsellem, National Employment Law Project) (pdf)

Judge Orders Justice Dept. to Uncensor Files on Violent Gangs and Terrorist Groups (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

In Wake of Mass Killings, States Still Don’t Comply with Gun Database of Mentally Ill (by Matt Bewig, AllGov) 

Worst Freedom of Information Award Goes to...the FBI (AllGov)


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