Skip to main content

The faulty FBI files that can ruin your life

By Madeline Neighly, Special to CNN
updated 9:26 AM EDT, Mon September 2, 2013
Madeline Neighly says the FBI seal is supposed to mark records official, legitimate and trustworthy.
Madeline Neighly says the FBI seal is supposed to mark records official, legitimate and trustworthy.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Madeline Neighly: Employers use FBI background checks, but half the information is wrong
  • She says 600,000 are turned away from potential jobs because database isn't updated
  • Neighly: An old arrest record can get workers fired, even if they were never charged
  • System must be updated, she says; it's an injustice to thousands of Americans

Editor's note: Madeline Neighly is a staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project and lead author of the new report, "Wanted: Accurate FBI Background Checks for Employment."

(CNN) -- No amount of economic growth will land you a job if you get unfairly snagged in the FBI's faulty background check system. And you can lose your job because of the FBI file inaccuracies, too.

After working without incident at a Philadelphia port for 33 years, Russ F. was told he was out of a job when a newly required post-9/11 security clearance check found an arrest dating back to 1971. Charges were never filed, and Russ was never prosecuted.

But the nearly 40-year-old arrest was reported on his FBI background check with no additional information, and Russ needed months to track down documentation to prove he had never been convicted or even charged with a crime. Only then could he regain his job.

A National Employment Law Project report found the FBI ran a record 16.9 million employment background checks -- a six-fold increase from a decade ago -- for jobs ranging from child care to truck driving, port workers to mortgage processors. Although background checks can contribute to workplace safety, inaccuracies in the FBI database mean that these checks are blocking about 600,000 Americans a year from jobs for which they may be perfectly qualified. This unfair barrier to employment can and must be fixed.

The case may have been dismissed or the charges reduced, but a prospective employer might not know it from the FBI background check.
Madeline Neighly

The glitch is that FBI records often fail to report the final outcomes of arrests. The case might have been dismissed or the charges reduced, but a prospective employer might not know it from the FBI background check. Roughly one-third of all felony arrests don't result in conviction, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and many more are reduced to misdemeanors. By the Justice Department's own count, roughly 50% of FBI background records are incomplete and don't include the final outcome of an arrest.

In the face of such errors, only a fraction of job seekers successfully correct their FBI records -- and then only with great effort and expense. Those unable to correct their reports are often trapped in a cycle of poverty that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder decried in a recent speech.

Raquel Vanderpool, a nurse's aide in Newport, Michigan, with nearly a decade of experience, was fired when an FBI background check inaccurately reported a youthful conviction that had been dismissed and sealed. Vanderpool was fired and unable to find employment while she struggled -- for four years -- to clear her record. During that time, she exhausted her unemployment benefits, relied on food assistance to feed her children, lost a family vehicle and was forced to short sale her home after entering foreclosure. Now re-employed, Vanderpool will have to spend years digging out of the financial hole that the FBI's inaccuracies left her in.

The burden of these errors comes with sharp racial disparities.

Just as African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system, so are they disproportionately harmed when records are incomplete. Denying employment based on faulty records puts more African Americans and Latinos out of work for longer while they struggle to clear their name.

Mueller: U.S. not a 'big brother' state
Successful search for Hannah Anderson

What can be done?

The FBI, which gathers records from the states, must provide accurate and up-to-date information when potential employers come asking for them.

A successful and well-established federal precedent for this exists in the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, the federal program for firearm background checks. Under the Brady Act, when the FBI receives background check requests for gun purchases, it contacts the appropriate federal, state and local agencies to get any missing disposition information and is able to clean up two-thirds of faulty records within just three days of the request. The system is quick, efficient and accurate.

If a similar system were applied to employment background checks, we estimate that 390,000 workers a year would be assisted -- able to get a job -- because of the timely, accurate information. Employers and licensing agencies would benefit from clean records, too.

Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Virginia, introduced a bill to clean up incomplete FBI background checks for employment. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, has also introduced the Accurate Background Check bill, specifically focusing on federal employment. These bills are coming not a moment too soon.

In addition to these critical legislative fixes, the FBI can do a lot immediately to address this problem, including accepting updated records from fellow federal and state agencies.

The seal of the FBI is intended to mark these records as official, legitimate and trustworthy. Until they are made so, the records pose an unacceptable barrier to employment for thousands of Americans. That's something our economy and our workers cannot afford.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Madeline Neighly.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT