State and local government law enforcement agencies are kicking criminal-record database development and improvement into high gear to meet the 1998 deadline for a handgun purchaser instant background check system. The 1993 Brady Act mandates an instant background check on handgun purchasers so that convicted felons, among others, cannot buy a handgun on the open market.
To help create the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), a total of about $88 million in federal funds was distributed to states last year as part of the Brady and Child Protection acts. The federal government granted each state at least some money under the National Criminal History Improvement Program (NCHIP, pronounced "N-Chip"), but states behind in records automation were granted more than others.
NATIONWIDE SYSTEM ARCHITECTURE
The plan for a nationwide background-check system is to use the Interstate Identification Index (III), as the backbone for noncriminal-related background checks. The III now includes criminal records sent by the 30 states participating in the system.
The plan is to "build on the existing system," said Emmet Rathbun, unit chief of the program developments section at the FBI, which is leading the project. "We're not talking about a whole new system. It will be an enhanced version of what states do now."
States making background checks on handgun purchasers will query the III. If there is a hit, the query will be pointed toward the appropriate state database. States will retain detailed data on what the person was arrested for and the disposition, or resolution, of the arrest.
By having the states retain the records, a "national system, rather than a federal system" is being created, said Gary Cooper, director of SEARCH, a criminal justice research and consulting organization specializing in information technology. "The states take responsibility for the records."
ILLINOIS SET UP
Illinois provides a good example of how the background checks work. In 1992, the state installed an instant background-check system called FTIP. Gun dealers call a 900 number which connects them with the state Bureau of Identification. There, operators run a check on the purchaser's name, as given by the gun dealer. The name is run through the state criminal database, the federal NCIC, an outstanding warrant database and a few other state databases. The checks are normally completed within a few minutes.
Criminal records, including dispositions, are submitted by circuit courts to the state, which has a private vendor input the data into the FTIP. Once records are received by the state, there is about a four- to six-week delay before the database is updated, said Mark McDonald, spokesman for the Illinois State Police, which runs the program.
But how long it takes county courts to get the data to the state varies depending on the amount of automation in the courts, as well as other factors. "It's a constant process trying to educate them to get [the data] to us in a timely manner," McDonald said. "And some are very good about getting it to us."
Possibly the most important factor in making the background-check system work is ensuring that the electronic records are updated and as accurate as possible. Technology has made updating records more important than in the past because searchable databases are now widely available to law enforcement agencies, including officers on the street.
Disposition data is important for handgun background checks, because a person has to be convicted of a felony, not just accused, to be denied a handgun purchase. But there's a lot of work to be done. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported last year that of the 25.5 million state records available nationwide, only 14.6 million of the available records included case disposition data.
States have varying degrees of automation and currentness in their criminal databases. A 1993 Bureau of Justice Statistics booklet, the most recent year figures were published, reported that Massachusetts reported 100 percent dispositions on arrests in the past five years, while Colorado reported 13 percent.
California has a backlog of over 1 million records to be loaded into criminal history databases, said Mike Van Winkle, a California Justice Department spokesman. If staff worked on nothing but the backlog, he explained, it would take more than a year to complete. About $3.4 million in NCHIP funds were granted to California for this purpose.
This backlog contributed to an announcement late last year by Attorney General Dan Lungren that the state's handgun waiting period was being increased from the former 15-day wait to 20 days. This would give the department more time to check handgun purchaser backgrounds, which sometimes requires phone calls to courts asking about the disposition of cases. If the data were on computers, the checks could possibly be done in a matter of minutes.
This is why NCHIP is important. If the states don't have up-to-date information in their databases, then an instant background check won't be instant or accurate.
But it is not just loading data on the computer which creates this backlog in states. Law enforcement depends on courts to send case disposition data to be loaded.
Florida is using nearly $1 million of its $2.9 million of NCHIP money to improve on its nearly 75 percent disposition rate. The Department of Law Enforcement currently gets disposition reports in electronic form each month from the state's court clerks. The department is preparing to change that to nightly updates.
"We want to make sure that we are giving out the most complete and accurate data possible," said Wayne Quinsey, a senior management analyst with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Quinsey said that by improving the percentage of case dispositions in criminal history databases, officials will not need to make as many calls to court clerks asking for information on the outcome of cases.
WEST VIRGINIA'S LONG ROAD
West Virginia is using NCHIP funds to bring its criminal records database up to date. The state is one of several priority states because criminal history databases there aren't as automated as other states.
The first step, said Michael Cutlip, a grant manager with the West Virginia Department of Public Safety, will be to hire a records manager. "We have a skeleton of a plan, and the coordinator will put in the depth," he said. About $250,000 of the state's $1.9 million award will go toward reducing the backlog in criminal history data entry. Another $1 million will go to the courts for automating disposition reporting.
Currently, the state queries the NCIC when checking a person's background, but state record checks are basically manual. It will take a year or so to eliminate the backlog in data entry, said Sgt. Thomas Barrick, director of the criminal records section of the West Virginia State Police. A system should be up and running in the next few years, but records may not be fully automated at that time, Barrick said. Brady has accelerated the state's records automation, he added, but, "we would automate records without Brady."
A compact has been drawn up by a states' committee to address varying restrictions on access to criminal history records for noncriminal justice purposes, such as a background check before a handgun purchase. Called the Interstate and Federal-State Compact, it also pledges states to participate in the III. Only 30 states are currently full members of the III, and participation by all is necessary for the seamless background-check system being created.
The compact was written with the input of federal and state officials, including the nonprofit SEARCH Group, and has been approved by federal government agencies, including the Justice Department. A resolution could be introduced in Congress this year, possibly as part of a crime bill. If Congress passes the resolution, it is the state legislatures' turn.
The compact would open access to necessary databases for noncriminal queries by persons authorized to access FBI databases, such as the III.