Criminal records system faulted in state audit : LUSENET : TB2K spinoff uncensored : One Thread

March 26, 2000

Criminal records system faulted in state audit

By JOHN HOPKINS ) 2000, The Virginian-Pilot

Virginia's criminal records system -- relied on by police, courts, child-care centers, social-service agencies and gun dealers for criminal checks -- has ``weaknesses'' in its accuracy, according to a state audit.

The Central Criminal Records Exchange maintains over 1.25 million criminal records as Virginia's sole criminal record repository. But the exchange, established in 1966, is only 85 percent accurate and only 59 percent complete, according to a review by the state auditor of public accounts.

The Department of State Police, which oversees the exchange, estimates it could cost more than $10 million to make substantial improvements in the system.

The audit, released before the recent General Assembly session, found that many police agencies, courts and prisons do not put criminal information into the exchange as required by law.

When information is supplied, it is sometimes inaccurate or incomplete.

It does not appear that innocent people are being arrested because of these flaws, said state Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle, R-Virginia Beach, chairman of Virginia's Crime Commission.

``I would say at this stage that there is a problem of incompleteness, but it is not a problem of listing people in there who don't belong in there,'' Stolle said. ``Are we picking up innocent people and taking them off to jail? No.''

State police do a good job of maintaining the repository once they receive the information, said Walter J. Kucharski, auditor of public accounts.

``But there were a tremendous amount of problems in people getting information to them and getting it to them correctly,'' Kucharski said. ``It's a very old system with lots of people using a lot of different ways of reporting information back to the state police.''

The exchange receives more than 330,000 criminal charges and nearly 300,000 case dispositions a year. In 1968, state law required police, court clerks and prison officials to submit criminal information to the exchange.

The information can include a person's arrest history, fingerprints, court disposition and prison confinement data.

Information submitted to the exchange -- essentially a central warehouse for the state's criminal data -- is then distributed to several other systems, including the Virginia Criminal Identification Network and National Criminal Information Center.

The information has numerous day-to-day uses.

For instance, day-care centers depend on background information when hiring.

Any error is of great concern when children are involved, said Rosemary Stanton, president of the Virginia Independent Child Care Home Association in Virginia Beach.

``It would be a concern to me, not just in this field, but as a parent and grandparent,'' Stanton said.

The State Board of Elections uses the information to prevent felons from voting. Judges use the information in sentencing. Police use it every day on the streets to determine suspects' propensity for violence.

State police refused to discuss the audit with The Virginian-Pilot, but said they have submitted a formal response to state legislators.

Stolle said he wonders if the exchange's accuracy and completion rates ``are as bad as the audit says they are.''

But ``from the perspective that people believe they're getting a complete and accurate report, they need to be concerned,'' Stolle said. ``We are concerned about this. The system is not foolproof, but it's still the best system available for doing checks. We feel that no error is acceptable and any error is too high.'' The audit made several recommendations:

The General Assembly should consider creating an oversight authority to enforce compliance with state law.

The General Assembly should provide about $10 million to automate the reporting process.

The exchange should improve its procedures to resolve erroneous or incomplete reports.

The exchange and the Virginia Supreme Court should work to develop a process that would let all courts provide case dispositions electronically.

Most data is submitted to the exchange manually, an inefficient and time-consuming process that requires police, court clerks and prison officials to fill out printed forms.

Some agencies have automated electronic reporting systems that make it easier to submit information.

Without increasing electronic filing, substantial improvement is not possible, the audit stated.

Legislators have called for a study this year to estimate the cost of integrating existing and future criminal justice computer systems in the state, recommend ways to eliminate redundant data collection, and suggest standards for collecting and sharing data.

-- - (, March 27, 2000

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