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 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT