For the 70 million-plus Americans living with criminal records, finding a job can be a Sisyphean task. Ex-offenders return to their communities in search of work only to find that many employers are reluctant to hire anyone with a rap sheet. Because they can’t find a job, many will end up back in prison. To break this cycle and reintegrate ex-offenders into the workforce, states have passed “ban-the-box” laws, which prohibit employers from asking job candidates about criminal records until the final stages of the hiring process. Hawaii passed the first ban-the-box regulations in 1998. Today more than 150 counties and cities, 24 states, and the federal government have some type of ban-the-box measure in place.
The laws, named for the checkbox on a job employment applications requesting disclosure of criminal history, give an applicant the opportunity to explain why he or she is a good fit for a position and why his or her criminal record should not be a barrier to employment. But a new study by Jennifer Doleac, a University of Virginia assistant professor of public policy and economics, and Benjamin Hansen, a University of Oregon associate professor of economics, suggests that banning the box comes with unintended consequences. Doleac and Hansen measured the laws’ effects and found that they exacerbated certain racial disparities in employment.
The study found that between 2002 and 2014 in states where ban-the-box reforms have been implemented, total employment for young African American and Hispanic men declined by 5.1 and 2.9 percent, respectively. The researchers hypothesized that due to popular stereotypes of young minority men as ex-offenders, some employers screen out candidates based on age, race, and ethnicity early in the hiring process if they do not have information about a person’s criminal history.
Doleac and Hansen’s conclusions about a widening racial employment gap in employment are consistent with other recent studies. The reforms have worked, but not for recently released ex-offenders who have the most difficulty in finding employment. Certain groups including college-educated black women and low-skilled, older black men did better in the job market after ban-the-box reforms were implemented.
“Ban-the-box reforms were never intended as a panacea for the severe employment barriers facing people with records, and certainly not for the entrenched employment challenges of young men of color locked out of the job market,” National Employment Law Project program director Maurice Emsellem and Ford Foundation fellow Beth Avery argued in a recent policy brief.
Discrimination based on race, ethnicity, and age is hard to detect and even harder to prosecute. However, criminal justice reform advocates continue to view ban the box as a step forward in promoting a wider range of reform strategies that include record-sealing and other “clean slate” measures.