You might sleep safer knowing the state of Texas is now requiring all 11,498 registered architects to be fingerprinted and undergo a background check. The Texas Legislature in its wisdom passed HB 1717 in the 2013 session mandating the change starting Jan. 1 this year.
Texas is the only state that requires architects to undergo such scrutiny. It also happens to be the state with the fifth highest prison population and the seventh largest number of convicted sex offenders, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice. Obviously, architects are not the problem, but…no fingerprints in the DPS database means no license or license renewal.
Given the laid back, creative profile of most architects I know, it seems odd to subject this group to a procedure usually reserved for people getting booked into jail or seeking a national security clearance. In truth, teachers, doctors, nurses, lawyers, engineers and many other licensed professionals in Texas have been subjected to mandatory fingerprinting for some years.
Architects finally joined the pool when a Sunset Commission review of the Texas Board of Architectural Examiners (TBAE) discovered they had been overlooked.
The program’s primary intent, it seems, it to make sure sex offenders and other convicted felons do not gain access to school campuses and other locations where their work might bring them into contact with children. Access to people’s homes, financial accounts, and other concerns also came into play. As someone who just visited an elementary and junior school in the San Antonio Independent School District Thursday and who has not been fingerprinted as a working journalist in Texas, the state law and policy seems arbitrary and highly selective.
For better or worse — or both — society is continuing to find ways to marginalize people with criminal records, especially sex offenders. High rates of recidivism make such individuals unsympathetic figures in the public eye, and elected officeholders respond accordingly. No one wants a sex offender driving the school bus.
Still, for a convicted felon who has served his (or her) time and been released, it is getting harder and harder to find a neighborhood to live in or an employer willing to hire them. Such constraints undoubtedly contribute to so many people failing to gain productive re-entry into society.
“A lot of architects at last year’s state convention complained about the policy after we were briefed,” said Lowell Tacker, a principal with OCO Architects and the former president of the San Antonio chapter of the American Institute of Architects. “People felt it was one more invasion of their privacy, but who wants to go on the record opposing it and then be accused of not caring if child molesters get on campus?”
Tacker said the feedback on the new law from members of the architectural community ranged from “negative to super-negative to super-super-negative.”
Some Texas architects complained about the new fingerprinting policy for an entirely different reason: they already were fingerprinted when they underwent background checks to obtain a concealed handgun permit. Architects pack hidden handguns? Who knew? The FBI does not provide state agencies with fingerprint records for their independent use and storage, so pistol-packing architects had to get fingerprinted like everyone else.
“There is such a thing as a right-wing or conservative architect, you realize,” Tacker quipped before assuring me he wasn’t armed.
The architects I surveyed were uniformly upset with the new law, and keenly aware of the inconsistencies in the state’s arguments for fingerprinting licensed professionals, while leaving the majority of the working population untouched.
“Please understand — and believe — that your TxA advocates did everything possible to suggest that architects are the professional that least need to be fingerprinted — if they need to be fingerprinted at all,” Texas Society of Architects’ Senior Advocate David Lancaster wrote in a posting to members last year. You can read some of the comments made by his dues-paying members on the Texas Society of Architects blog.
A few weeks into the process, Lancaster said the process has gone well, despite the unhappiness with the new law. More than 300 architects were fingerprinted at the state convention in Fort Worth in November.
“Before Christmas, we were up to nearly 2500 architects who registered even before the Jan.1 start, ” said Glenn Garry, TBAE communications director.
For the nearly 4,000 Texas-registered architects who live and work in another state, they, too, will have to be fingerprinted when they file for their license renewals.
As I started contacting firms about the change in December, I imagined long lines of architects, small sketch pads and pencils in hand, winding around the Texas Capitol, waiting to be fingerprinted after the holidays. But that’s not how it works. Like everything else, the work is outsourced to a private contractor, in this case Morpho Trust USA, a subsidiary of a French company Saffron. Presumably, these workers at a foreign-owned company have been carefully vetted and fingerprinted before allowing them direct contact with our Texas architects.