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A report by Tony Plohetski of The Stateman reveals that Travis County is remarkably behind in updating the Texas Criminal Justice Information System, the state database used by law enforcement and state licensing agencies for criminal background checks. This type of lag in the updating of crucial information in the criminal justice system can have broad ramifications of which people with sealed or expunged records should be aware.

The Texas Criminal Justice Information System (CJIS) contains data such as arrest dates and case outcomes. The CJIS is made up of two separate systems, the Computerized Criminal History System (CCH) and the Corrections Tracking System (CTS). The CCH is defined by statute as the statewide database containing arrest, disposition, and such other criminal history as is maintained by the Department of Public Safety. The CTS is also defined by statute as the database maintained by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice on all offenders under its supervision. Plohetski reports that, as a whole, the CJIS is used by law enforcement and other state agencies 40,000 times per day, both by state agencies looking to screen potential employees and prosecutors examining criminal history for the purposes of case management and potential plea negotiations.

The effects of missing information on the criminal justice process cut both ways. State agencies that are screening potential employees may mistakenly grant teachers or childcare workers licenses despite convictions that should prevent that approval. Also, a prosecutor who is not aware of all the arrests and convictions in a defendant’s history may make a deal that is too lenient, which has significant implications in cases where additional punishments are imposed on repeat offenders. For example, Plohetski reports that one defendant in Harris County was charged with two counts of aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon. Further research by an investigator – involving physically visiting the defendant’s hometown – revealed that he had a previous conviction for assaulting a police officer. Based on his incomplete record, he was eligible for parole. With the investigator’s new information, he received a 75 year sentence.

Perhaps even more troubling, however, is the possibility that prosecutors may be operating on incorrect information, such that they mistakenly believe that a defendant has been convicted of extra crimes or of crimes of a greater degree. Competent legal representation will prevent gross miscarriages of justice, yet this can be significantly after the initial arrest or early negotiations occur.

As such, the dangers posed to citizens by inaccurate, incomplete, and outdated criminal records extend beyond employment and negotiation consequences. For example, Walter Rothgery was arrested in Gillespie County for being a felon in possession of a firearm based on inaccurate arrest reports from California indicating that he was a felon. Rothgery was not a felon. The background check by police in 2002 indicated that Rothgery had a felony conviction from 1996, yet the charges against him in California had actually been dropped. Regardless, the police acted in reliance on this background check and charged Rothgery with a third-degree felony. Eventually he received an attorney who cleared up the error, yet this was 6 months after he’d been arrested, during which time he was incarcerated, released on $5,000 bail, had his bail increased to $15,000, and incarcerated again.

At the very least, incomplete criminal records in the database slow investigation processes, requiring the targets of such background checks to provide court documentation to correct or contradict inaccuracies and errors. These records are not always immediately available to those who have been the target of a faulty background check. While a properly updated system should result in a speedy clearance of persons who are the subject of such a check, a shoddily maintained system contains inaccuracies and omissions that force defendants in the criminal justice system and their attorneys to constantly and vigilantly maintain hardcopy proof of proceedings.

The slow updating or removal of data can have a significant, adverse impact on people who have had their records sealed or expunged. Under Texas law, many people are eligible to have dismissed cases expunged or sealed. This is crucial for people who are seeking new employment or licensure from a state agency. An inaccurate record in the CJIS may result in false positives during employment background checks, such that an applicant’s file falsely indicates and discloses an arrest or conviction that it should not.

Travis County is the lowest-ranked county in Texas for keeping the database current with essential criminal information, including details such as whether a person was acquitted or found guilty in a case. An audit performed by the Texas Department of Public safety evaluating counties per calendar year indicated that in 2005 and 2006, Travis county had completed only 16% its cases. The rate has continued to increase since then, but only up to a 48% completion rate for 2009.

The problems with Travis County’s reporting have been systemic and predate those discussed in Plohetski’s article. The Criminal Justice Policy Counsel is required by law to conduct audits of the CJIS. One such audit, conducted in 2006, indicated that Travis County had major local reporting problems. The audit further indicated Travis County failed to report arrests during 1998 through 2000, though it also stated Travis County officials “ha[d] resolved their reporting problem and have subsequently reported many of the missing arrests.”

Plohetski reports that a Travis County Clerk admits to being aware of the problem and being “very close” to correcting a system of clerical errors and technological glitches that place Travis County at the lowest rate of completion in the state. For the sake of comparison, most counties were keeping their databases at a rate of completion between 70 and 80%. This includes rural areas where the technology available is less advanced. It also includes counties, such as Harris County, which has a busier criminal justice system and yet boasts a completion rate of 97%.

Read the entire article here.

Written by Record Clearing

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