Criminal checks deficient: State’s database of convictions is hurt by lack of reporting
Sunday, October 03, 2004
THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS
Sunday, October 3, 2004
NEWS; Pg. 1A
By DIANE JENNINGS and DARLEAN SPANGENBERGER
More than 3 million times a year, state agencies and individual Texans turn to the state criminal convictions database to buy a little peace of mind by running background checks on prospective licensees, employees, tenants or even significant others.
They’re not getting what they pay for.
The state criminal convictions database is so riddled with holes that law enforcement officials say public safety is at risk.
According to a report issued in July by the Texas Department of Public Safety, the state has only 69 percent of the complete criminal histories records for 2002. In 2001, the state had only 60 percent. Hundreds of thousands of records are missing.
“That’s just shocking,” said Renee Judd, administrator of a Dallas home health agency who uses the database to screen employees and assumed it was comprehensive.
Law enforcement officials, who use state data much more frequently than Ms. Judd, have been aware of the problem for years.
“Anyone who depends on the state database for a full and accurate check is foolish,” said John Bradley, Williamson County district attorney. Mr. Bradley is currently prosecuting a murder case in which the state information shows no prior convictions for the defendant; he actually received probation twice before on drug charges in two different counties.
The problem is particularly acute in Dallas County, which has one of the worst records of reporting criminal convictions among metropolitan areas. In 2002, less than half the convictions in Dallas County made it into the state database. The year before, it was one out of every five.
In analyzing county and state records, The Dallas Morning News found more than 4,000 Dallas County records involving sex offenses, from 1993 to 2003, that did not appear in the state convictions database last year.
By contrast, Harris County sets the pace for urban counties, reporting 96 percent.
Dallas County officials blame an outdated computer system scheduled for replacement this month. “Our criminal justice computer system is over 30 years old,” said Allen Clemson, court administrator. The system has been “modified and Band-Aided for years.”
Officials say the new technology should resolve some of the reporting deficiencies going forward. Criminal convictions since 2000 are being restored to the state system manually – and gradually. There are no plans to restore missing convictions between 1993 and 2000.
Another problem area is with the state sex-offender registry. The online system is plagued by incomplete or inaccurate information, which might give employers and neighbors a false sense of security. In a spot check of 245 sex offenders registered in the city of Dallas, The News found more than 40 whose information does not appear in the state registry.
DPS officials are well aware of the reporting problems with criminal convictions and sex offenders. “Our data is only as good as what’s reported to us,” said Angie Klein, manager of the Criminal Justice Information System.
Dismal as Texas’ record keeping may seem, it’s better than in many states. The FBI estimates that slightly fewer than half of convictions make it into a national database. That’s particularly problematic when it comes to gun sales.
Convicted felons may not purchase guns, but if the criminal history is lacking, the sale may proceed after three days. Since the 1998 Brady Bill regulating gun sales, the FBI has ordered more than 21,000 firearms – including almost 2,500 in Texas – retrieved from those who should not have been allowed to buy them because of incomplete background information.
Mr. Bradley and other law enforcement officials, as well as many state agencies and certain types of businesses such as day care centers, have access to other information such as arrest records. But without a conviction, the information requires checking at the local level to make sure the charge was not dropped or the defendant acquitted.
And, if the conviction is not processed, some people might be judged wrongly if they were arrested but later cleared.
Jessica Edwards, an assistant district attorney in Hunt County, said she learned of the problem early in her career. As a West Texas prosecutor, she was startled to find a man she had once prosecuted for murder return to the system with no mention in state records of his prior conviction.
Because the previous murder was local, prosecutors easily found the records. But, if he commits another crime in a different county, “and they run his record … they won’t see that this guy has been up for murder,” she said.
“It’s part of my job to help protect the community. And I can’t do that properly if I don’t know how dangerous the person is I’m dealing with.”
Luckily, when the case of James McNatt came to her attention, Ms. Edwards knew how dangerous he could be – and took the extra step of checking local records.
In 2001, a glassy-eyed, “somewhat confused” Mr. McNatt was found sitting in a car pointed in the wrong direction in Greenville. “I felt a moral responsibility to get James McNatt off the road,” Ms. Edwards said.
That’s because Ms. Edwards knew Mr. McNatt had a long history of DWI convictions. He also had an involuntary manslaughter conviction in 1983. To prosecute Mr. McNatt as a “habitual” offender – thus subject to a harsher sentence – prosecutors needed a more recent conviction. But the state convictions database didn’t show any.
So Ms. Edwards and County Attorney Keith Willeford checked Dallas County records, where they verified another DWI in 2000. As a result, they withdrew plea bargain offers of 12 or eight years.
“That’s why we took the extra step,” Ms. Edwards said.
Mr. McNatt was convicted of DWI as a habitual offender and sentenced to 99 years. His appeal is pending.
He declined to be interviewed, but his attorney, Vincent Perini, expressed surprise that the 2000 Dallas conviction was not in the state records. “I assumed that the DPS had that information,” he said. If Hunt County prosecutors had failed to find the case, “that would have made a huge difference” in his client’s sentence.
Checking local records worked in Mr. McNatt’s case. But in a state as big as Texas, with 254 counties spread across more than 260,000 square miles, local checks are not always possible. Generally, “We don’t have the time or the manpower to investigate further,” Ms. Edwards said. “Most of the cases, we do solely rely on that [the state database].”
In an age when parcels can be tracked across the country, it’s difficult to understand why felons can’t be tracked across county and state lines. “It’s almost like you go from county to county as a criminal [and] you’re reborn every time you cross the county line,” said Richard Alpert, assistant criminal district attorney in Tarrant County.
Some arrests, for instance, are simply never reported. A 2002 audit conducted by the now-defunct Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council discovered that more than 88,000 arrests and subsequent “dispositions,” or outcomes, in 30 counties never reached DPS. Projecting that figure statewide meant an estimated 221,000 criminal dispositions would be missing that year.
Dr. Tony Fabelo, the council’s former director, attributed the failure to employee turnover, low staffing levels and computer problems.
Those same issues affect reporting at the court level.
Sixty-two counties, in mostly urban areas, submit information to the state electronically, Ms. Klein said. But the computer systems often are outdated and the information doesn’t always reach the state.
That’s the problem in Dallas, Ms. Klein said.
In 2001, Dallas County failed to completely report almost 51,000 records; in 2002, the number was 39,000. County officials submitted the information, but Ms. Klein said a “computer glitch” did not tell the system to transmit it to the state.
Before the 2002 report, state officials only ran spot checks on information. “What we get is really good” from Dallas County, Ms. Klein said, so Dallas appeared to be one of the best at reporting information. But they didn’t know what they didn’t have.
The computer problem was not identified until DPS analyzed all the information for the first time. Before the 2002 DPS report, “there were no controls at the state level to catch this sort of thing,” Ms. Klein said.
Since then, DPS has stepped up monitoring by providing detailed monthly performance reports to county officials, including arresting agencies and prosecutors.
Mr. Clemson, the Dallas County court administrator, said the county had no idea the information wasn’t getting to Austin because no one complained. Once notified, he said, the county responded quickly.
“This is a high priority issue with us,” he said. “We have done every single thing the state has asked us to do.”
Other county officials acknowledge they face chronic technology problems that the database problems merely highlight.
District Attorney Bill Hill said he was taken aback at the condition of county computing power when he took office in January 1999. “Most of my 200-plus prosecutors did not even have computers,” he said. “If we wanted to call a meeting, we had to write a memo and make 300 copies.”
The new system should resolve most of the problems, Mr. Clemson said. In the meantime, county officials are committed to filling in the missing records from 2001-03.”When all is said and done, we think it will be in the 70s or 80 [percent] compliance for 2002, and certainly that much or better for 2003, as we continue to work through this mess,” Mr. Clemson said.
There are no plans to find records missing from the 1990s or earlier, however.
“It would be extremely difficult,” Mr. Clemson said. “It’s not a high priority right now.”
Ms. Klein of DPS said she hoped Dallas County will retrieve those records. The 1998 conviction of Dallas priest Rudy Kos, for instance, does not appear in the state convictions database.
But County Judge Margaret Keliher said she wasn’t sure the benefit of restoring old records would merit the cost of that effort.
The information is still available in the county, she said. “You can come and look it up here.”
Filling the holes
Reporting criminal history to the state became mandatory in 1993. Any information available before then was sent in voluntarily by county officials. Filling the holes in the database before reporting became mandatory would be a gargantuan task.
Robby Collins learned the hard way about the hit-or-miss basis of criminal convictions from the early 1990s. As a personnel administrator for Dallas Independent School District, there were “lots of instances” where an employee’s record came up clean, when they actually had been in trouble before, he said.
In 1997, for instance, after a substitute teacher was charged with sexually assaulting a 14-year-old boy, officials learned the teacher had previously received probation and deferred adjudication for public lewdness and indecent exposure – information that had not appeared in state records during background checks.
The holes in the system bothered Mr. Collins so much that he started Safe Schools, a company specializing in comprehensive background checks tailored to school districts, when he retired from DISD in 1999. The company and other professional background investigators check individual county records where an applicant has lived and worked. DISD, along with many other districts in North Texas, now subscribe to Safe Schools
“There is no 100 percent accurate check of a criminal record,” Mr. Collins said, but “all criminal justice starts at the county level.”
The DPS has pushed Texas counties for more accurate reporting for years. Forms have been standardized and trainers dispatched to help county officials.
Most counties want to provide better information, Ms. Klein said, but the Legislature never funded the effort.
State District Judge John Creuzot in Dallas said improved reporting won’t be a priority until taxpayers push for it. But that probably won’t happen “until they get angry about it,” the judge said.
“Which usually is the product of something going terribly wrong.”