Flaws in Arizona criminal-background-records system imperil public, study findsby JJ Hensley on Mar. 21, 2013, under Arizona Republic News
The criminal-background-check system that Arizona police, gun dealers and employers rely on is flawed, and fixing it could cost as much as $24 million, according to a new study by the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission.
The system relies on employees at dozens of agencies around the state to properly enter and track information. Too often, the study found, the system fails, resulting in missing criminal records and creating large records gaps that can endanger law-enforcement officers and the public.
The report, scheduled to be released today, lays out steps police, prosecutors and court employees should take to fix the system through a combination of new technology, technical support and training. A task force of representatives from police departments, courts and counties throughout the state compiled the report.
“We’re not looking to expand the information that we’re directed to keep,” said George Diaz, a public-affairs officer with the justice commission. “What we’re looking to do is enforce the law that exists already.”
The process of identifying flaws in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System began after the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, when the U.S. Justice Department started to award grants to states to improve their records programs. Federal officials recognized the need to improve the database in part because the shooter, who killed 32 people and then himself at Virginia Tech, was able to legally buy a gun from a federally licensed firearms dealer despite being mentally ill.
Information on the shooter’s mental-health history was not in the federal records system.
“As a consequence, the system was unable to deny the transfer of the firearms used in the shootings,” the justice-commission report notes.
Nearly six years after the Virginia case, justice-commission researchers found the same flaws in the information Arizona collects and sends to the federal database.
“What I continue to believe is that this information exists; this information is somewhere in this state,” said Phil Stevenson, the justice commission’s director of statistical analysis. “What is not working as well in Arizona is the sharing of that information from either local courts or from other organizations to the federal government for NICS purposes.”
The task force recommended that state court administrators develop a mental-health information repository that would take electronic feeds from court cases in all 15 counties, removing the “manual paper-driven informal process” that exists in Arizona.
The task force also found that:
Of 44,075 outstanding Arizona felony warrants that should appear in the National Crime Information Center, a minority of 13,344 are actually there.
The absence of a statewide domestic-violence charge, which is typically charged as another offense such as assault, makes it difficult for courts to identify domestic-violence crimes and next to impossible to identify the relationship between the victim and the defendant. While that relationship information is required in the NICS, “this information is not captured in any system in Arizona,” the report states.
Charges that change, including those that are reduced or enhanced, between the time of arrest, trial and sentencing make it difficult for courts to capture accurate data on arrests and dispositions. It could lead to some names remaining on the NICS when they should be removed and vice versa. A statewide effort to remedy the problem was launched in 2004, but fiscal constraints have delayed the project’s completion, according to the report.
Members of the task force have begun working through the problems and proposed solutions.
Arizona Department of Public Safety spokesman Bart Graves said his agency’s task-force participants felt the process was an important part of a continuing statewide effort to accurately track criminal-justice data. The panel’s work to standardize warrants is of particular importance, he said.
The most costly solution to the records gap would come with a $50,000 price tag for each courthouse in Arizona that needs an automated fingerprint-identification system, a machine that provides biometric information and forms the backbone of the state’s background-check network. Justice-commission representatives could not say how many courthouses need the systems, but Stevenson, the director of statistical analysis, said they would go a long way toward solving problems identified in the report.
Conflicts between the state’s fingerprinting practices and federal guidelines also create holes in the background-check network, and they are particularly acute with misdemeanor drug offenses, the report states. Federal guidelines, for example, require people arrested within the past year for a drug offense to be in the system checked by licensed firearms dealers. But in Arizona, many officers cite and release minor drug offenders until seized drugs are tested to confirm they are illegal substances, the report says.
That practice means drug offenders’ fingerprints are not entered into the system unless tests come back positive and they appear for court dates, the study found.
The task force could not address a conflict between Arizona’s medical-marijuana law and federal law. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives issued guidance to licensed gun dealers reminding them that marijuana is illegal under federal law and smokers should be denied weapons. According to the report, firearms dealers are supposed to deny a sale if the purchaser is a medical-marijuana cardholder. However, the Arizona Department of Health Services is prohibited from sharing cardholder information with the DPS for inclusion in the background-check system. The conflict can only be resolved by cardholders obeying the honor system and disclosing their status as medical-marijuana users when buying a weapon.
Many other proposals to fill gaps in the system rely on processes that are already in place but not used regularly by all parties, according to the report.