Report 2015-504 Summary - July 2015
Follow-Up—California Department of Justice:
Delays in Fully Implementing Recommendations Prevent It From Accurately and Promptly Identifying All Armed Persons With Mental Illness, Resulting in Continued Risk to Public Safety
Our follow-up audit of the California Department of Justice's (Justice) progress in addressing certain issues we raised in our 2013 report highlighted the following:
- Although Justice has partially implemented our recommendation that it implement quality control procedures over its Armed and Prohibited Persons unit (APPS unit) staff determinations, Justice needs to do more to ensure that it identifies all armed prohibited persons.
- It implemented a review process of its staff determinations that individuals are prohibited from owning a firearm, but did not do so for staff determinations that individuals are not prohibited from owning a firearm.
- Justice does not have desk procedures or a checklist to assist the APPS unit staff in making correct prohibition determinations, as well as entering and reviewing information into the Armed Prohibited Persons System (APPS database).
- Justice's daily processing queue—a queue that contains the daily events from courts and mental health facilities—during the first quarter of 2015 was over 3,600 cases, which is six times higher than its revised goal of no more than 600 cases.
- Justice is unlikely to complete its review of events in the historical queue—a backlog of certain persons who have not yet been reviewed since Justice implemented the APPS database in November 2006—by its December 2016 goal.
- Justice is not conducting trend analyses of mental health determinations made by the courts as a means to potentially identify instances of nonreporting or underreporting.
Results in Brief
The California Department of Justice (Justice) has not fully implemented certain recommendations from our October 2013 report that prevents it from accurately and promptly identifying firearm owners in the State who are prohibited from owning or possessing a firearm due to a mental health-related event in their life (armed prohibited person).1 As we described in our previous report, Justice attempts to identify these armed prohibited persons by matching its records of firearm owners against reports about individuals with mental illness that it receives from superior courts (courts) and mental health facilities. This identification process is critical for Justice to complete promptly so that it can confiscate firearms from armed prohibited persons and ensure public safety.
This follow-up audit focused on certain recommendations we made to Justice related to the accurate and timely identification of armed prohibited persons as well as its process for reaching out to courts and mental health facilities. In our October 2013 report we reported that Justice did not correctly identify three of eight persons we reviewed as armed prohibited persons nor did its Armed Prohibited Persons System (APPS database) always contain accurate information. We noted that of an additional 12 individuals prohibited from firearm ownership, Justice had omitted a mental health prohibition in the APPS database for one and for another Justice staff did not identify all of the individual's firearms in the APPS database. As a result of these errors, we recommended that Justice implement quality control procedures over its Armed and Prohibited Persons unit (APPS unit) staff determinations. Although Justice has partially implemented this recommendation, it needs to do more to ensure that it identifies all prohibited persons. Specifically, Justice developed and implemented quality control procedures for review of its staff determinations that individuals are prohibited from owning a firearm; however, it did not implement similar procedures over its staff determinations that individuals are not prohibited from owning a firearm. Despite our previous finding that APPS unit staff inaccurately identified some individuals as being not prohibited from firearm ownership, Justice interpreted our recommendation to be limited to determinations over individuals who are prohibited from firearm ownership. When we discussed our concern with Justice, it agreed that it is important to perform reviews of all staff determinations and in April 2015 took steps to put new procedures in place to do so.
Further, in our follow-up review of Justice's quality control procedures over its staff determinations that an individual is prohibited from firearm ownership, we identified two errors in the 10 cases we reviewed. Specifically, in one case we found that an APPS unit staff had incorrectly prohibited an individual from firearm ownership because the APPS unit staff member had not reviewed all pertinent information, such as the individual's Social Security number and address. When Justice makes this type of error, it inappropriately infringes upon an individual's right to own and possess firearms. In the other case, we determined that the APPS unit staff had not included all weapons belonging to the individual in the APPS database as required. Ensuring the APPS database contains accurate information is important because Justice agents who confiscate weapons from the armed prohibited persons use this information when planning firearm confiscations. These errors may have occurred because Justice does not currently have desk procedures or a checklist to assist the APPS unit staff in making correct prohibition determinations, as well as entering and reviewing all pertinent information into the APPS database.
Additionally, in our previous report we noted that Justice had backlogs in its two processing queues: a daily queue and a historical queue. During late 2012 and early 2013, Justice had a backlog of more than 1,200 matches pending initial review in its daily queue—the queue that contains the daily events from courts and mental health facilities that indicate a match and may trigger a prohibition for an individual to own a firearm. Because a backlog in this queue means that Justice is not reviewing these daily events promptly, we recommended that Justice establish a goal of no more than 400 to 600 cases in the daily queue. However, during this follow-up audit, we found that Justice's daily queue during the first quarter of 2015 was over 3,600 cases; this is six times higher than its revised goal of no more than 600 cases. Just as it did during the previous audit, Justice continues to cite its need to redirect staff to another Bureau of Firearms (bureau) priority, which has a statutory deadline, as the reason for this backlog. We believe that, if Justice had a statutory deadline on the initial processing of the matches in the APPS database, it would encourage Justice to avoid redirecting APPS unit staff. The chief of the bureau believes that seven days would be a reasonable time frame to complete an initial review of matches.
Furthermore, when we conducted this follow-up audit, we found that Justice is unlikely to complete its review of events in the historical queue by its December 2016 goal, a goal that we discussed in our October 2013 report. The former assistant bureau chief explained that the backlog in Justice's historical queue (historical backlog) consists of persons who registered an assault weapon since 1989 or acquired a firearm since 1996 and who have not yet been reviewed for prohibiting events since Justice implemented the APPS database in November 2006. In our previous report we reported that as of July 2013, Justice's historical backlog was nearly 380,000 persons; now as of April 2015—over a year and a half later—its historical backlog is still over 257,000 potentially prohibited persons. Based on Justice's annual averages of reviewing the historical backlog since 2010, we estimate that Justice will not complete its review of the historical backlog until 2018 based on Justice's most productive year or 2022 based on Justice's current pace. The longer it takes Justice to review the records in historical backlog the longer armed prohibited persons keep their firearms, which increases the risk to public safety.
In our October 2013 report we also reported that many courts were not aware of a state law requiring them to report individuals to Justice when the courts make certain mental health determinations because Justice had not reached out to the courts to discuss reporting requirements and confirm instances of nonreporting or underreporting. As a result, we recommended that Justice coordinate with the Administrative Office of the Courts at least once per year to share information about court-reporting levels, including the trends in the number of reports each court sends. We also recommended that when Justice identifies a court that it determines may not be reporting all required information, it should request that the court forward all required case information. When we reviewed the changes Justice implemented since the previous audit, we determined that Justice was not conducting a trend analysis as we recommended. If Justice had conducted such an analysis, it would have found that 25 percent of the courthouses had a significant decline in the number of prohibited person reports in 2014. By not considering such trends, Justice cannot ensure that it has the necessary information to identify all armed prohibited persons with mental illness.
This audit focused on relevant actions Justice has taken related to selected recommendations we made in our October 2013 report. During our follow-up audit, we updated our evaluation of the status of these recommendations, and we noted conditions that indicate a need for additional recommendations to Justice. For example, Justice needs to better manage its competing priorities to ensure that it reviews potentially armed prohibited persons promptly. Additionally, it needs to implement quality control procedures over all of its determinations, regardless of whether the APPS unit staff determine that an individual is prohibited or not prohibited from firearm ownership. We believe that by fully implementing the recommendations from our prior report and fully implementing the additional recommendations we present in this report, Justice can ensure that it fulfills its responsibility of identifying armed prohibited persons.
To ensure that Justice fairly balances competing responsibilities and avoids redirecting APPS unit staff to competing priorities, the Legislature should require Justice to complete an initial review of cases in the daily queue within seven days.
To ensure that it accurately identifies all prohibited persons, Justice should implement its plan to develop a checklist by July 2015 and desk procedures by September 2015 to aid its analysts in making correct prohibition determinations.
To ensure staff can promptly address the daily queue and the historical backlog, by July 2016 Justice should identify and implement strategies, including pursuing funding, to staff its bureau operations to the level it needs.
Justice agrees with our recommendations and outlined steps that it will take to implement them.
1 Armed Persons With Mental Illness: Insufficient Outreach From the Department of Justice and Poor Reporting From Superior Courts Limit the Identification of Armed Persons With Mental Illness, Report 2013-103 (October 2013).