Fingerprints: Inmates released without complete criminal histories

Report recommends arresting agencies and courts help DOC create up-to-date files

By Karen Loschiavo
The Daily Record Newswire
PHOENIX, AZ — More than 1,000 inmates were admitted to the Arizona Department of Corrections without a fingerprint record or criminal history between 2007 and 2014, according to records from the agency.
And at least one-third of those individuals will be released from prison with no history that reflects their criminal record or time served.

This means that if individuals had no prior criminal history, they could pass a background check and get a fingerprint clearance card to drive a school bus or buy a weapon because their criminal history is not available in the federal background check system.

“Doing a record check is only as accurate as the records that are in the system,” said Andrew LeFevre, legislative liaison for the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission, which issued a 2014 report detailing gaps in the criminal history reporting process and recommendations for improvements.

The 1,018 inmates showed up in the Department of Corrections without the proper criminal histories on file because they fell through the cracks earlier in the criminal process, said DOC spokesman Andrew Wilder.
Since 2005, however, DOC has been aware of the problem of missing criminal histories and implemented a GAP Filler Project in 2007 in partnership with the Department of Public Safety to retroactively create criminal histories.

It has worked for 619 of those 1,018 cases.

The cases that couldn’t be solved are missing information that DPS is unable to locate along the paper trail that begins with an arrest and ends with sentencing.

From January to Oct. 29 of this year, DOC found 138 inmates arriving without complete criminal histories. Of those, 77 have been resolved, 18 are still pending, and 43 were unable to be resolved, Wilder said.
Even with the GAP program, some inmates still are released with incomplete criminal histories. Marc Peoples, manager of the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission’s system improvement program, said more inmates likely have gone unnoticed by the DOC.

What is being done?

The Criminal Justice Commission put together a task force in 2012 to make recommendations for improving accurate reporting to the FBI’s National Instant Background Check System. The system conducts all of the state’s background checks, including those for all firearm purchases conducted through a licensed dealer. Tony Coulson, a consultant to the task force, said a complete criminal history is essential to the system’s reporting.

“It’s one of the most important pieces to enhancing our reporting in the state, to make sure that our criminal history database is accurate,” Coulson said.

Wilder said it’s critical for all arresting agencies as well as courts to create more complete criminal histories, because DOC can only do so much to locate missing information. If someone serves time in jail, that person may not come through a state prison under DOC’s jurisdiction. In that case, it’s up to local law enforcement to ensure a full criminal history.

Peoples said the practice of cite-and-release, or citing someone and then releasing them at the scene of the crime, which often happens with DUIs, places the burden of fingerprinting on the defendant. Defendants are ordered to report to their local police station to get fingerprints before their court dates, and often this doesn’t happen. This means when they show up in court, they may never have had a fingerprint of all ten
fingers that creates a criminal history record, and could be sentenced and serve time without a criminal history on file.

A pilot program tested in Superior Court in Maricopa and Pinal counties easily identified defendants by using mobile fingerprinting devices, allowing the courts to detect a criminal history attached to the defendant more accurately than with the paper and ink method. If no 10-point fingerprint is found, the judge can order the defendant to get fingerprinted, Peoples said.

This stops the defendant from continuing through the sentencing process without the creation of a criminal history.

“It just speeds things up and makes things more accurate,” LeFevre said.

Beyond fingerprinting

The Criminal Justice Commission report states that inefficiencies beyond gaps in the fingerprinting process can also lead to incomplete criminal histories.

Since 2011, Arizona has received more than $1.2 million in grants from the National Criminal History Improvement Program connected with the Bureau of Justice Statistics. It is intended to make criminal histories more complete and improve access to them across the country. The state has also received $3 million in grants from the National Instant Criminal Background Check System..

Criminal histories are kept in the Arizona Computerized Criminal History system, run by DPS.

The commission’s report states that while this has improved criminal histories, incomplete charges still are added to the system because “endemic and critical understaffing issues ensure that reconciliation of criminal history is a secondary or even tertiary task for most justice personnel.”

A paper-based system for reporting final dispositions, the report states, leads to backlogs when the final disposition report is sent to DPS to be entered into the system and an inconsistency is discovered. A disposition is the record of the court’s final ruling in a case. DPS will send the report back to the prosecutor or the court and it can end up in a box with many other incomplete reports.

Brant Benham of DPS said that in fiscal year 2015, of the 168,211 disposition forms received, 12,375 were returned to courts or law enforcement for clarification. It’s not clear how many were paper-based and how many will be returned back to DPS. He said DPS and the Criminal Justice Commission are working together to encourage the use of the Automated Disposition Reporting System throughout all agencies across the state.

“The ADRS is our preferred system. We’d much rather everybody move to that,” he said.

Completing the automation of the system was a goal for the money received from National Instant Criminal Background Check System in 2014. The Arizona Criminal Justice Commission report says the automated system was used in 37 percent of dispositions recorded in 2013, but it can take just as long or longer to use the system than using paper.

Benham said agencies have to use their own record management systems and enter the information into the Automated Disposition Reporting System separately, which means extra time and money. Creating a computer interface that would link counties’ records managements and the automated system is another costly objective.

“There’s so many things begging for IT,” he said.