What Is a Criminal Background Check? A Quick Guide

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Posted by: David Garcia February 20, 2021

As a recruiter and hiring professional, it’s your responsibility to understand the intricacies of screenings applicants will undergo.
To field questions and help place people in the best roles possible, it’s crucial to understand how criminal background checks work. We will cover what recruiters need to know and consider regarding criminal background checks in this article.

What is a Criminal Background Check?

Criminal background checks only cover a potential history of crimes committed. They do not verify employment, education, driving records, or certification checks. If those searches are important to you, there are additional type soft checks to run.
However, if you want to make an educated decision about hiring someone based on their criminal record, then a criminal background check offers you that information.

What Types of Criminal Background Checks Exist?

There are several different levels of background checks to which you can subject your potential employees to uncover their criminal records. The basic categories are as follows:

  • County Criminal Searches – These searches only reveal criminal history in a single county. Sometimes they may be limited to felonies; however, you may also uncover misdemeanors, infractions, and probations.
  • State Criminal Searches – These searches are a bit broader and include all criminal history within the state. Not all states have criminal databases and those that do may not collect data from all counties.
  • Federal Criminal Searches – Even broader still, these searches tap into data from federal district and appellate courts, which can tell you if your potential employee has committed a federal crime anywhere in the United States. Federal crimes include things like tax evasion, fraud, and kidnapping.
  • International Watch List – If the Department of State has deemed your potential employee to be a threat to the nation, then their name will appear on this list.
  • National Criminal Database Searches – These searches come from databases which typically “screen scrape” records from county websites and collect data from other sources (e.g. department of correction records). These databases are exhaustive and should be used in conjunction with county criminal searches.

What Shows Up on a Criminal Background Check?

However, you can expect to find the following components on most criminal background checks.

  • Name (including any other aliases they may be known as)
  • Criminal convictions

Each listing will usually include the name of the crime, its disposition, and the date of the disposition. You could think of the disposition as the status of the crime, which generally falls into one of the three categories of conviction, non-conviction, or pending.

Some criminal background checks may also list infractions, which are usually only punishable by fines and not jail time. Infractions are not typically considered criminal, which is why they are not always listed. Examples of infractions include littering, public intoxication, and jaywalking.

How Long Does Conducting a Criminal Background Check Take?

While there are criminal background checks you can conduct that can return information to you in a matter of hours, these checks are generally less reliable than others. It would be best if you considered how much time you have as well as how accurate you need this pre-employment screening to be to determine which criminal background screening will be the best for your purposes.

The quickest criminal background checks merely run your candidate through a national crime database. However, you should be aware that this database is not considered a primary source because it takes information from several different sources, including various levels of court records. It is also unclear how exactly this database is updated, so you cannot be entirely sure that the information you will find is completely accurate.

If you want to run a thorough criminal background check, this process can take one to three days. If you are interested in discovering county criminal convictions, then that process can take from a few hours to a few days depending on the county. However, the county criminal background check process can take even longer if the records in your county have not been entirely digitized, and you will need to enlist the help of a county court clerk.


Conducting criminal background checks on your potential employees is absolutely worth it because it will help protect your existing employees and your business.
Here at ScoutLogic, we’re experts at helping improve and streamline screening processes for recruiters. This includes running criminal background checks and making sure everything is done in a compliance-first way.
Team up with us to learn how our Scouts can become part of your team and put time back on your clock. Click here to book a free assessment today.

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