Audit: Arizona database flaws may put public safety at risk

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crime in handcuffs

State auditors say public safety may be put at risk by reporting gaps and a backlog in the database that Arizona uses for conducting background checks of people seeking certain jobs or occupational licenses and for helping prosecutors and judges decide whether defendants should get plea bargains or lenient sentences.

The problems exist in the state’s central depository of criminal history records, a database maintained by the Arizona Department of Public Safety and updated with case reports from law enforcement agencies and courts, the Auditor General’s Office said in a report released Friday.

The auditors said the database didn’t include 17% of a sampling of 103 felony offense records from four Arizona law enforcement agencies and that 40% of a sampling of 30 felony offense records in the database were missing dispositions, such as whether a case was dropped or the defendant was convicted.

The database is important because criminal justice agencies use it “when making decisions that could help deter further offenses, such as decisions regarding plea bargains, and sentencing repeat offenders,” and the records also are checked to see whether people seeking jobs in fields such as teaching and child care have criminal histories, the auditors’ report said.

The auditors also found out that the department has a large backlog of records. “As of July 9, 2021, the department reported it had approximately 58,500 bulk submitted offense and disposition records, some of which date back more than 30 years, that needed to be researched, corrected, and/or entered into the central repository.”

DPS officials said the backlog existed partly “because of its need to prioritize other responsibilities and the lack of sufficient staff and resources to enter the records,” the report said.

The department’s formal response to the audit said the agency agrees with most of the findings and would implement multiple recommendations for improvements to bolster the database, including filling staff vacancies in the unit that maintains it and systematically asking other agencies to provide missing information.

The auditors also recommended that the Legislature change state law to add reporting requirements for cases involving crimes that might preclude somebody from being hired for certain jobs or obtaining certain licenses.

The department and the auditors were at odds on a related recommendation.

Citing a fairness concern, the auditors said DPS, for now, should stop having the database include information on certain misdemeanor crimes for which reporting isn’t required by current law.

Because of inconsistent reporting on those types of cases by DPS and some other agencies, “individuals who have had these offenses reported to the central repository may be inequitably denied licensure or employment,” the auditors wrote.

The response submitted by the DPS director, Col. Heston Silbert, balked at implementing that recommendation. Reporting only mandatory offenses will hurt public safety and the criminal justice system, he said, noting that numerous misdemeanors would stop a person “from obtaining a fingerprint clearance card license or employment with vulnerable populations.

“Arizona’s criminal justice system relies on the full range of offenses listed in the central repository mandate for sentencing, charging and licensing decisions.”

Republished with the permission of the Associated Press.