By Jennifer Doleac &
Doleac is an assistant professor of public policy and economics at the University of Virginia and a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Hansen is an associate professor of economics at the University of Oregon and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.
If we want to reduce incarceration rates, we must help ex-offenders build stable lives outside prison walls. Assisting them as they find jobs, even from employers skeptical of those with past convictions, is an important step to enabling them. One common method is to “Ban The Box,” which amounts to preventing employers from asking about applicants’ criminal records until late in the application process. (The policy gets its name from the box that applicants are asked to check if they’ve been convicted of a crime.) If applicants with criminal records can get an interview, advocates reason, perhaps they can convince employers that they’re a good fit for the position regardless of their history.
This seems like a good idea. But recent evidence suggests that BTB laws do more harm than good. They actually decrease employment for young, low-skilled black and Hispanic men overall, a group that already struggles to get work even when they have committed no crime.
This is because—box or no box—employers remain reluctant to hire people with criminal records. The typical ex-offender is likely to face problems that the typical non-offender does not: difficulty finding stable housing; high rates of mental illness, substance abuse and emotional trauma; poor interpersonal skills; low levels of education and little or interrupted work histories. Our incarceration system worsens many of these problems by focusing more on warehousing offenders than rehabilitating them. Those who have a recent conviction are also likely to re-offend, which could unexpectedly take them off the job. And hiring someone with a criminal record increases employers’ risk of a negligent hiring lawsuit, if the employee does something like assault a customer. These are all valid concerns for an employer who is seeking a reliable, productive employee.
Banning the box does nothing to address those concerns. Employers still have incentives to avoid interviewing and hiring ex-offenders. When we take precise information about criminal histories away, then, employers are left to guess based on the remaining information they do have—such as education, gender and race. That is, they statistically discriminate against groups that are most likely to have a recent conviction.
Given the demographics of offenders in the United States, the group most likely to be discriminated against is young, low-skilled black and Hispanic men. They are the most likely to have a recent criminal conviction that would concern employers, and so ex-offenders in this group are the most likely to be helped by BTB, while non-offenders in this group are the most likely to be hurt. The important question, then, is whether BTB does more good than bad. Are these young men more or less likely to be employed after BTB than before?