COLUMBUS - Already this year, 25 million Americans have had background checks by the federal government, a number that`s risen every year since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Amid the rise, a notable shift has occurred: More civilians are now checked each year than criminals. And checks on the vast majority come back clean, even as states allot more money for their growing screening operations.
And, in rare cases, predators still slip through the cracks. Take Timothy Stephen Keil, an Ohio church camp counselor recently convicted of molesting two young boys. Or Ralph Fiscale, a New Hampshire soccer coach, and Stephen Unger Jr., a Texas schoolteacher, both of whom committed similar offenses in the past year.
All were either not run through a check by their superiors, or they passed one.
Civil libertarians say the tradeoffs of such a system, built largely through state mandates enacted since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, have become too high.
State background check laws - applied to groups as varied as professional nursing home workers, reading tutors, bankers and even volunteer dog walkers - are becoming so numerous as to be almost meaningless, said Christine Link, executive director of the ACLU of Ohio.
In Ohio, nearly 4 million background checks have been conducted since 2001, for instance, a figure equivalent to nearly half the state`s 8.7 million adult population.
"The sheer volume of them tells us that they`re not working, because to be effective these background checks have to be looked at very carefully," Link said. "I wouldn`t be surprised if there`s a terrorist or two in there, but you`re not going to find them when you`re doing so many."
In a recent poll conducted by The Barna Group, a California-based marketing group helping churches, a quarter of pastors surveyed admitted they don`t have adequate background and reference checking in place.
Barna Group president David Kinnaman said most churches are very small, with perhaps 100 parishioners, and the checks aren`t seen as an urgent need.
"In a lot of those places, they have a setting in which it`s very, very hard to imagine any abuse taking place," Kinnaman said. "There can be an over-inflated sense of safety, a naivetÃ© of the changing issues churches are facing."
Similarly, a recent Associated Press search of state-by-state records found 2,570 incidents of sexual misconduct in public schools between 2001 and 2005, despite background checks of teachers being required in many states.
Civilian background checks now dominate the workload at the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation, costing taxpayers nearly $9 million a year. Since 1993, the number of annual checks performed by the bureau has grown from 38,000 to 650,000 on average.
Checking someone`s criminal background is a common political response to each new social crisis. Ohio lawmakers, for instance, have introduced additional background check requirements recently for foster care parents, following a series of incidents against children, and for public school teachers, following revelations of sexual acts toward students going unreported.
Yet Ohio figures compiled for The Associated Press by the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation and Identification found that the 90-percent-plus passage rate remains consistent, regardless of how many Ohioans are screened.
Steve Fischer, a spokesman for the FBI, said that pattern also holds true at the national level, where the number of background checks being conducted has exploded since Sept. 11. It continues to grow at a pace of about 12 percent a year.
Fischer said 69 percent of criminals who are checked turn out to have their fingerprints already on file, compared to just 12 percent of civilians.
He said the federal program used to be heavily weighted toward checking criminals, but a shift toward civilians has occurred since Sept. 11.
"It used to be slightly higher on the criminal side," Fischer said. "But since 9/11, the majority of our checks are civilians - people applying for jobs, licenses, things like that."
Most of the background checks are required under laws emanating from state legislatures aiming to protect people from predators.
"It`s mostly about protected populations: children and the elderly," Fischer said.
Yet crime statistics present mixed evidence as to whether the explosion in records checks is having an impact. On a national level, sex crimes and forcible rapes had already been declining steadily before the 2001 attacks. The Bureau of Justice Statistics attributes that reduction to a variety of societal factors, of which background checks are only one.
Ohio figures show an unpredictable pattern, with arrests for forcible rapes and sex offenses sometimes rising and sometimes falling year by year. Overall, since 2001, arrests for the two types of crimes are down from 2,253 to 1,371, based on self-reported law enforcement data.