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Policy meant to help convicts increases racist employment practices, study finds

Most convicts aren’t done serving their punishments after they’re released from prison. They also find it harder to get full-time jobs to support themselves and their families, and therefore become more likely to commit another crime.
Most convicts aren’t done serving their punishments after they’re released from prison. They also find it harder to get full-time jobs to support themselves and their families, and therefore become more likely to commit another crime. miss_millions

Within three years of their release, two-thirds of former convicts are rearrested. Half of them are re-convicted.

A year after their release, 60 to 75 percent of former convicts are not employed.

Both studies and common sense have found those two facts are linked. If people can’t make money legitimately to support themselves and their families, they will turn to illegitimate means.

But a concerted effort to try to fix the issue could unintentionally result in more problems for people who have never committed a crime.

“Ban the box” is a policy that has been adopted by multiple cities and states and was even applied to federal employees by President Barack Obama in 2015. It bans employers from including a box on job applications to ask if they were convicted of a crime and doesn’t allow employers to ask about criminal history until “late in the hiring process.”

The policy is meant to help former convicts prove themselves to employers before hiring staff would automatically toss their application out due to a criminal history. Increased hiring of convicts would hopefully decrease recidivism rates.

But like many policies with good intentions, a study has found it has an unintended negative consequence. While the policy might help former white convicts, it results in employment practices that tend to punish black and Hispanic people, even those who are innocent of any crimes.

Princeton researchers submitted thousands of fictitious job applications to employers in New Jersey and New York before and after ban the box laws went into effect and tracked how many callbacks these applications received. Each had randomly assigned race and criminal backgrounds. The New York numbers are not finished yet, but the New Jersey study is revealing on how employers adjust to ban the box policies.

Employers that asked for criminal history on a job application called white people back slightly more often before ban the box laws went into effect, but that gap became four times larger after employers were no longer allowed to ask about criminal history. The difference is statistically significant.

Jennifer L. Doleac of the Brookings Institution said this discrimination comes up because employers are trying to use extremely limited information in a job application to find people who would be “peaceful, honest, agreeable employees who won’t be taken off the job by an arrest or conviction.” Most employers do that partially by checking criminal backgrounds, even though some former convicts are perfectly capable of fitting that mold. But without that check, they turn to another, even less accurate indicator: Race.

“Black and Hispanic men are more likely than others to have been convicted of a crime: the most recent data suggest that a black man born in 2001 has a 32 percent chance of serving time in prison at some point during his lifetime, compared with 17 percent for Hispanic men and just 6 percent for white men,” Doleac writes. “Employers will guess that black and Hispanic men are more likely to have been in prison, and therefore less likely to be job-ready.”

Doleac argued that a ban the box policy therefore “hurts more people than it helps.”

“Just because employers can’t see an applicant’s criminal history doesn’t mean they don’t care about it,” Doleac said. “Under ‘ban the box,’ they will avoid ex-offenders by avoiding groups that are more likely to contain ex-offenders, like black and Hispanic men.”

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