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June 21, 2016 Reading Time: 2 minutes

A couple months ago on this blog, I highlighted some recent research about criminal offenders re-entering the labor market. The research I discussed had found that ex-offenders who passed a waiver process to enlist in the U.S. Army were as successful, or were more successful, in a variety of ways than average enlistees.

Many U.S. jurisdictions are enacting “ban the box” laws prohibiting employers from asking about criminal histories on job applications. One common goal of these laws is to keep ex-offenders from being automatically screened out before even having the chance to interview. The hope is that keeping criminal histories private until later in the hiring process will mute the effects of statistical discrimination and help workers, like the soldiers admitted through the waiver program, who could succeed if they could get past the first hurdle and be evaluated on more than their criminal histories.

Another recent paper by Amanda Agan and Sonja Starr found that in New Jersey and New York City, however, these efforts to “ban the box” may have had unintended consequences.

The authors sent fictitious online applications to employers before and after “ban the box” policies were adopted, varying the resumes by qualifications, criminal history, and whether the applicant had a “racially distinctive” name. They found that banning the box generated a much larger racial disparity in callbacks than was found in the applications sent before the policy.

Holding all else constant, employers that asked about criminal records were 62 percent more likely to call back an “applicant” without a criminal record, and about 7 percent more likely to call back an applicant with a traditionally white name than a similar black applicant, no matter whether they had a criminal record. The latter effect was not statistically significant in some specifications.

After the ban on asking about criminal records, however, employers were 45 percent more likely to call back a white applicant than a similar black applicant. In other words, banning the box appears to have led employers to statistically discriminate based on race, whereas they did not do so beforehand, an outcome which certainly was not the intention of the new law, not to mention against existing law.

There are always limitations to any research design.  As the authors note, they limited their study to jobs that required fairly little work experience or specialized skills, which means the results may not generalize to other sectors. However, they also correctly point out that these are the types of jobs for which many people with criminal records apply, and within the scope of their study the evidence is convincing. This is an important, if unpleasant, outcome to keep in mind for policymakers, as well as average workers and citizens, when thinking about the best way to help give ex-offenders a chance to get back on their feet.

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Patrick Coate, PhD

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