Dallas convicts no longer shred confidential data

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by JASON WHITELY

Bio | Email | Follow: @jasonwhitely

WFAA

Posted on December 10, 2011 at 10:06 AM

Updated Saturday, Dec 10 at 4:36 PM

DALLAS — Dallas County's little-known community service program which lets convicted criminals sort and then shred confidential documents and personal information has come to an end after News 8 questioned the practice.

For more than a decade, parolees and probationers had been working off community service hours by destroying thousands of sensitive documents — including psychiatric exams of juveniles, copies of Social Security cards, birth certificates, court records, drug tests, and even medical records.

Many were clearly stamped "CONFIDENTIAL."

One document reviewed by News 8 reads: "CONFIDENTIAL AND PRIVILEGED: This report is provided for your use ONLY. It should not be revealed to any person whatsoever — not even to the person(s) to whom it relates without the authorization of the court."

Dallas County has ordered all of these documents to be destroyed, in keeping with its records retention policy. But neither the public nor many high-ranking county officials were aware that convicted criminals were handling the information.

At the minimum, this practice raises concerns of information security and identity theft. But experts said the county could face more serious scrutiny.

"This is serious," said Matthew Yarbrough, a Dallas attorney who's also a former federal prosecutor. "This is the sort of behavior or business process — even by the county — that is unacceptable."

Dallas County could be liable, Yarbrough said, if anyone misuses the information.

Plus, having criminals handle medical records could mean Dallas County is violating federal privacy rights for medical records, known as HIPAA, Yarbrough added.

"Any convicted felon handling your personal patient information should be something that gives you pause," he said.

Criminals have shred sensitive documents almost daily for the past decade at a run-down warehouse in the 4800 block of Harry Hines Boulevard.

The Community Service and Corrections Department, which organizes document destruction, goes through more than a half-million pounds of paper each year, the county revealed.

Who started the practice and why criminals were allowed to be around sensitive data remains uncertain.

"I just can't believe that this has been going on," said Dallas County Commissioner Maurine Dickey. She said the county should hire a professional shredding service.

"By not disposing these documents in an acceptable way brings a great deal of exposure to the county," Dickey said.

Dallas County pointed out that the probationers and parolees are supervised whenever they are around the personal information, and no issue has ever arisen until one probationer recently smuggled out at least a dozen documents to expose the problem.

In addition to showing the information to News 8, the documents were also turned over to the district attorney's office.

Days after News 8 started asking questions and brought this to light, County Judge Clay Jenkins took action and stopped the practice of criminals from putting their hands on such sensitive information.

"It's important we protect the confidential data the people entrust the government with. Period. And we need to make sure we get that done right," Judge Jenkins said.

He said he ordered an immediate review of the practice to determine how to protect this information in the future.

E-mail jwhitely@wfaa.com

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