Giving Past Offenders a Chance at a New Job

If you’ve ever applied for a job, you’ve probably seen one particular question on your form: do you have a criminal record? But it’s becoming increasingly likely that you won’t be asked the next time you apply.

There is a growing movement to “ban the box” in the United States, prohibiting employers from asking about criminal histories on applications. Such laws have been enacted recently for Wake County government employees in North Carolina and private businesses in Austin, Texas while a similar bill is on the table in Colorado, just to name three examples in the news this past week. Supporters often argue these laws are important to help give past offenders a fair look in the hiring process, which could both reduce recidivism and enhance productivity.

Recently, I had the opportunity to learn a little bit more about this topic at the Population Association of America meeting. In a session about labor market dynamics among youth, one presentation was titled “Does a Criminal Past Predict Worker Performance: Evidence from the Nation’s Largest Employer.” The employer in question is the United States armed forces.

The researchers, Jennifer Lundquist, Joya Misra and Eiko Strader, obtained administrative data on enlistees, including whether they had been admitted with a waiver for an otherwise disqualifying felony arrest. Because ex-offenders had to qualify through this screening process, they are, of course, not representative of all felony offenders. But they may be representative of ex-offenders whose resumes would catch the eye of civilian employers.

The authors found the ex-offenders were no more likely to be discharged before the end of their term than the general population, and they were in fact more likely to eventually be promoted to sergeant than an average recruit.

There are reasons to be cautious generalizing this result. For one thing, it was not clear exactly how strict the screening process was, so it is hard to say what fraction of ex-offenders are being studied. It could also be that ex-offenders work harder in the Army specifically because they know they face discrimination in the civilian labor market. This would make their promotion records less informative about what would happen if this bias went away.

Still, it is as a whole an encouraging study about the potential of many Americans to make the most of a second chance.

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