Have ban-the-box policies actually hurt minority youth employment?

We all know that having a job is one of the best indicators of success and happiness in life. Unfortunately, people who have recently exited the criminal justice system, face some of the largest barriers to finding gainful employment, which can lead to recidivism and re-incarceration. Being that the likelihood of someone ended up back behind bars, is significantly reduced when that person is able to successfully find a job, lawmakers from around the U.S. have been trying to tackle ways to reduce the stigma associated with a previous criminal history and put people back to work.

There are currently 2.3 million people in the criminal justice system in the U.S., with an additional 5.1 million people on parole or probation. As it stands, people are being released from prison at a much faster rate than they are being admitted. Each year roughly 637,000 people will be released from prison, and nearly two-thirds of these people will be re-incarcerated within three years of being released. As a result, civil rights organizations have been pushing ban-the-box policies in states and local jurisdictions throughout the country over the last 15 years.

What is ban-the-box?

Often times, when a person who was formerly incarcerated goes to find a job, they find it very difficult to get passed the initial screening for an interview. Since a question about criminal history is pretty standard in almost all businesses and public entities, applicants have two choices every time they apply for a job: either lie and risk the chance the employer finds out later, or tell the truth and ensure that a call back is virtually impossible.  

The basic premise surrounding banning the box, is that if an applicant is not required to answer questions about his/her criminal history at the beginning of the interview process, they will have a greater opportunity to showcase their qualifications and become gainfully employed. This idea first began percolating among civil rights activists in Hawaii in the late 90’s. Then in 2004, the organization All of Us or None launched a grassroots campaign in response to several community summits that identified employment and housing discrimination as major barriers to successful reintegration after incarceration.

Since the inception of the campaign, a number of state and local governments have been enacting policies that either limit or prohibit employers from asking about someone’s criminal history prior to the initial job interview. Supporters of the policy have argued that these programs are designed to increase employment for people with criminal records, decrease recidivism and re-incarceration, and as a way to reduce discrimination in the hiring process. As of today, a total of 31 states and 150 cities and counties have adopted some sort of ban-the-box policies, which means that nearly 75% of Americans currently live in a jurisdiction that has banned the box.

The first phase of the ban-the-box campaign is to limit or prohibit public sector entities from asking questions about criminal history in the initial stage of the hiring process. After this can be achieved, proponents then push to expand that prohibition to private businesses as well. While most of the existing ban-the-box laws focus on public sector employment, eleven states (California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington) have expanded ban-the-box policies to the private sector. Most recently, the campaign has pushed for the expansion of the program to applications for housing, in an attempt to further reduce discrimination and increase stability for ex-offenders.

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Unintended Consequences

The advancement of ban-the-box policies should be applauded insofar as local and state elected officials have begun to reduce the stigma associated with having a criminal history; however, they may not be working exactly as planned. A recent study by Jennifer Doleac of the University of Virginia and Benjamin Hansen of the University of Oregon, suggests that ban-the box policies may have resulted in an overall reduction in employment for young men of color.

In looking at the incremental rollout of ban-the-box policies over the last decade, Doleac and Hansen tested the overall effect that the implementation of these policies has had on the rate of employment of low-skilled, young males as a whole. The authors chose to look at low-skilled males aged 25-34 with no college degree, since these people were the most likely to have been recently incarcerated. Ultimately, in studying all of the jurisdictions that had promulgated the policies, the researchers found some surprising results:

  • Employment of young African American males decreased by an average of 5%.

  • Employment of young Hispanic/Latino males decreased by an average of 2.3%.

  • Young white males did not see any difference in employment, but in places with a private sector ban in place, they did see a slight increase in employment.

These results would seem to suggest that ban-the-box policies, although well intentioned, may actually be causing more serious issues for employment of people in low-income communities. Being that an employer is not able to screen as many people during the initial application phase, they seek to limit the potential applicant pool by making broad assumptions about the demographic groups that they associate with a criminal background.

A Path Forward

None of this should serve as a way to delegitimize the ban-the-box movement, and it should be noted that these policies have been successful in helping to reduce the stigma associated with incarceration in the U.S. However, this particular study is interesting because it would suggest that we have some bigger issues at hand if we plan on helping people find jobs and reintegrate into society. Instead, this study should be used as a tool for how to strengthen ban-the-box programs to provide for greater employment opportunities for all people.

Most employers want to employ reliable, productive employees, and a previous criminal history is seen as a red flag early on. Being that people with criminal backgrounds typically have less education, less work experience, and long gaps in their work history; it is no surprise that employers may be apprehensive about hiring someone with a criminal background. Since there is data to suggest that employers are more likely to discriminate against broad groups when there are a greater number of people in the applicant pool, we need to work with employers to address some of the concerns that they may have against creating a more diverse workforce that could include not only minority employees, but also those who have been rehabilitated in the criminal justice system.

Here are some possible ways we can strengthen ban-the-box policies going forward:

Increase Awareness - First and foremost, if a state or local government has a ban-the-box program in place, it would necessary to have some sort of a public awareness campaign to help educate and work with employers to help encourage diversity the in the workplace, and work to reduce the stigmas and assumptions made about people who are reintegrating into society. Only by working directly with employers at the chamber of commerce or local government level, can we hope to start changing the ways that business owners view newly released individuals.

Additional Training - Additionally, states and local governments can help to address employer concerns of employing a low-skilled ex-offender, by making sure that they receive adequate vocational training and education prior to being released. However, just giving them the education opportunities alone will not solve the problem. It is important to make sure that job applicants know how to highlight those newly developed skills in their resume, and find ways to show potential employers that they are indeed qualified for a particular job.

Incentivizing Hiring - Finally, states and local governments may be able to offer incentives to businesses for making a concerted effort to hire newly released offenders. Being that the costs of incarcerating (and re-incarcerating) an individual are incredibly strenuous on state budgets, it would seem to be in states' best interest to find innovative ways to provide opportunities to give ex-offenders a pathway towards success. One way to do this would be to reward businesses that are committed to stepping up and doing the right thing when it comes to their hiring decisions. This could be done through providing tax credits, reducing business licensing fees, or providing financial assistance for on the job training for businesses who employ people with a criminal background.

Overall, ban-the-box policies are important because they help reduce barriers to employment for ex-offenders. Being that a reduction in recidivism is directly tied to someone’s ability to find a job after being released, we need to be looking for solutions that give people the opportunity to succeed. However, at the same time we need to be equally focused on finding ways to limit discrimination at all levels of the hiring process. If we don’t do anything, the negative effects of recidivism will cause grow federal and state correctional budgets to skyrocket. Through a little innovative thinking and cooperation, we can work to make sure that everybody who wants job can get one, regardless of their background.

References

Doleac, Jennifer L., and Benjamin Hansen. "The unintended consequences of “ban the box”: Statistical discrimination and employment outcomes when criminal histories are hidden." (2017).

Rodriguez, Michelle Natividad, and Beth Avery. "Ban the box: US cities, counties, and states adopt fair hiring policies." National Employment Law Project (2016).

Erik Jimenez