Checking on your baby sitter's or blind date's criminal history in North Carolina just got a little harder.
This month, the Administrative Office of the Courts, which keeps criminal records across the state in a central electronic program, started forcing private vendors to tap into an antiquated computer system to get the most up-to-date records.
The bottom line: It will cost customers more and take longer.
"This is really taking us back," said Paul Dent, owner of Hirease, one of about 50 vendors that pay the state for its criminal records to provide background checks for clients such as staffing companies and school systems.
John Smith, director of the AOC, said the change is necessary to protect the secrecy of criminal records that have been expunged. In North Carolina, judges can agree to wipe away a defendant's crime, forcing the courts to hide these records. Forcing vendors to check the most recent disposition available will ward against inadvertent release of charges that have been expunged, Smith said.
Smith said some vendors were using outdated versions of state data, meaning they still were including charges or convictions that had been expunged.
"We want our records to be reliable and dependable," said Smith. "We don't want people harmed."
A growing business
Criminal records in North Carolina are public.
But the electronic system that keeps them - built in the 1980s - is clunky and makes it nearly impossible for laymen to search records across the state. AOC officials haven't opened the full system to the public because they fear security breaches and don't think the system would support that volume of users.
People can visit local courthouses and search criminal records, but they can see results only for that particular county.
In the late 1990s, AOC turned to private vendors, who were lobbying for access that would allow them to fill the demand for statewide criminal records searches. Today, about 50 companies have contracts to buy North Carolina's criminal database and updates to sell to customers.
"We came in as the middlemen," said Dent, whose company lost a request for a judge to stop AOC's new system of providing records. "We made the old data searchable. It was invaluable for our clients."
Companies needing to vet job candidates, law offices, schools and media outlets turned to the private vendors to search people's criminal histories. Some companies, Dent said, pay to have his company search employees against the database every day to check for new charges.
Most vendors charge $3 to $6 for a one-time search. Since 2002, vendors have paid about $37 million to AOC for access to the records.
That money was to be spent on technological updates at AOC. Officials never set priorities for overhauling the system to create a user-friendly search function.
"We wish we could let people have straight, live access into our site," said Smith. "Clearly that's the gold standard."
Smith said it's not a good time to ask for resources, given the budget crisis facing North Carolina government.
Vendor funds paid for updates to the current system. Smith said AOC hasn't saved the money to pay for a replacement system.
AOC has a long history of mishandling technology projects. A legislative oversight committee blasted the agency in 2008, saying the department's technology projects run far behind and are poorly managed.
AOC launched NCAWARE in 2000 that lets officers and magistrates access arrest warrants across the state. It was supposed to be completed by 2004. Even now, two counties, Mecklenburg and Buncombe, are not online.
Revenue to rise?
Vendors say the new contracts to access criminal records may force some of the companies out of business. Dent predicts his monthly costs to AOC will soar from $500 a month to more than $6,000. Some vendors have already alerted clients that their cost will at least double.
Smith said it was not AOC's intention to increase revenues through this change.
The new arrangement will do more than add cost and hassle for customers seeking criminal history searches.
With the new system, some vendors worry that they will not be able to capture some charges they did before when they could search for categories on their own databases, using Social Security numbers or other identifiers. With AOC's system, catching misspellings of a name and mistakes such as an incorrect date of birth are more difficult.
That's a troubling prospect for employers who hire the vendors to help them weed out job applicants with previous problems. Some employers, Dent fears, will forgo the checks because of cost.
"Companies will hire someone with a record because they are trying to save money with a work-around," Dent said.
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