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What can a criminal background check reveal?

What can a criminal background check reveal?Criminal background checks are a common pre-employment screening technique for any position of a sensitive nature. This can be for individuals working with children, janitors with access to all areas of a building, accountants with banking privileges or even commercial drivers.

Employers are not searching for parking tickets or speeding fines but for more serious criminal records or felonies. Criminal background checks will reveal convictions, and sometimes arrests, up to seven years old. The information available differs from state to state however and rules on what information may be included in a background check report differ.


Some states allow public access to criminal records, others allow free online access and others require written applications for information. In some areas records are only maintained for some courts and certain types of offenses, and although most states now allow online access to the sex offender registries (SORs) the information in the registries is limited.

The type of information that is revealed during a criminal background check really depends on the type of search that is carried out and the state regulations in place. Some employers may be able to access the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) to check the criminal record of prospective employees who need to work with children, the elderly or disabled. However, most will have to rely on a number of different public record systems.

How to conduct a criminal background check.

One of the simplest checks is a search of the federal court indexes which can usually be performed online at a very low cost. However, it can take some effort to match identities and so false results can easily occur.

The next step in a search is usually to contact the state department of corrections to search their records. These records often go back up to 20 years but state law determines whether or not this information can be revealed as part of a criminal background check. Some state records can be searched electronically, but records from county jails may not be included in searches of this type.

State and county records can also reveal valuable information. Some states have combined indexes of court records which can be searched electronically - making the job of the investigator much easier by allowing fast searches of multiple county records.

In general though, most clients want the information quickly and may not request the thorough checks that can take several days or weeks to produce results. However, it’s not worth risking a good job in the hope that information about your past will not be revealed.

You’re better off mentioning any criminal record you may have at interview and explaining the situation in advance rather than allowing a background check to let it surface when you’re not there to defend yourself.