More companies check for arrests

Want to be an accountant in Alpharetta?

How about a billing specialist in Roswell? A house cleaner in Gwinnett County, a hotel front desk clerk in Union City or a courier in Atlanta?

If you’re among the 65 million Americans who have a criminal background, you need not bother to apply.

In those recent Craigslist job postings, as in a growing number of other recent job openings, employers are making clear that job seekers must pass a criminal background check.

Many companies feel it’s a necessary step to insulate themselves from liability, protect their employees and safeguard their reputation, said Teela Jackson, a spokeswoman for Talent Connections, an executive-level recruiting firm. And at a time when there can be hundreds of résumés to cull through, it may be an easy way to winnow the pile.

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For people such as Jacqueline Scott of Decatur, requests for a background check have become a seemingly insurmountable barrier to getting hired.

Scott holds associate degrees in accounting and early childhood education, and she is now a nationally certified medical assistant. She graduated from the American Professional Institute with a 3.8 grade-point average.

But she keeps being turned down for medical assisting jobs because of a felony conviction stemming from a 13-year-old arrest for drug possession.

The fact that she never spent a day in prison and hasn’t been in trouble since seems to be of little consequence to potential employers.

“It’s so hard to get a decent job with that one thing that is following me around the rest of my life,” Scott said.

The Georgia Crime Information Center, the database for criminal records maintained by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, adds about half a million arrest records every year, and it maintains a total of 3.3 million criminal records dating to 1972.

The original purpose for maintaining them was to be a resource for police and prosecutors. Many employers don’t understand how to interpret criminal records, and they may view any arrest as a red flag, GBI Director Vernon Keenon said.

But since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the number of employers requiring criminal background checks for job applicants has mushroomed. So much so that the GBI began having trouble keeping up with the work. It contracted with a vendor to run fingerprint checks using the GCIC database at locations across the state in 2007. Applicants sign a waiver allowing their prospective employer to access the information.

A criminal record check will pull up misdemeanor convictions, felony arrests and felony convictions. Many people are surprised to learn that prior felony arrests show up even if the arrest did not result in a conviction.

If charges were dismissed or never prosecuted, or if a person was found not guilty at trial, individuals must apply to have their record expunged. The application costs $50 and requires a prosecutor’s approval. The process can take months.

State lawmakers are looking at simplifying the expungement law. House Bill 663, introduced by Rep. Jay Neal, R-LaFayette, would automatically restrict public access to records of any arrest or criminal charges that didn’t result in a conviction.

Police and prosecutors would still have access to those records, but some prosecutors want to maintain discretion over the granting of expungements.

Cherokee County District Attorney Gary Moss said he spends roughly two hours a week reviewing expungement requests. He dislikes the idea of altering the public record by expunging criminal charges, even if those charges were later dropped for lack of evidence.

Moss, however, doesn’t understand why an employer would reject a job applicant based on a prior arrest if there was no conviction.

“A lot of people get arrested without having broken the law,” Moss said.

Even if someone succeeds in expunging the records available through the GCIC, prior arrests may still show up in the records of companies such as ChoicePoint or LexisNexis that contract with employers to provide cheaper background checks. Such companies tap multiple sources, including local courthouses and jail booking records.

The Fair Credit Reporting Act requires that information provided by background check companies be up to date, but GBI officials say that information is much more likely to be unreliable and outdated than state records.

“They are pulling information from public databases that may or may not be right,” said Neil Gerstenberger, the assistant deputy director over information services for the GBI.

Gerstenberger encourages employers to ask for a fingerprint check, which will match the applicant to his official records and ensures that no one has stolen his identity.

The Georgia Justice Project, a nonprofit that provides indigent criminal defense, has a program called “Coming Home” to help people such as Scott sort out misunderstandings with potential employers, fix mistakes on their records or get expungements. Last year, it assisted about 600 clients.

Laws bar companies from having a blanket ban on job candidates with criminal convictions or arrest records. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission requires that each candidate’s background be evaluated in light of the job he or she is seeking.

So individuals with a criminal past have a choice: disclose it up front or wait to see if a criminal record comes back to haunt them.

Jackson of the recruiting firm Talent Connections advises job seekers to be honest.

“If you’re not and the company finds out on the back end,” she said, “you wasted your time and theirs.”

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