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Effectiveness of Ban-the-Box Policies

August 18, 2017

The Ban-the-Box advocacy movement has been an incredibly successful bipartisan effort. As of May 2017, 27 states, the District of Columbia, and 150 local municipalities have enacted policies which banned the question on employment applications concerning criminal history.[1]  

These policies vary in their area in focus, whether on public or private employment, but the substantial number of successful enacted policies appears to indicate a strong victory for those interested in decreasing employment discrimination against those with criminal histories.

Image: States with Ban the Box Policies by Type. Source: National Employment Law Project Image: States with Ban the Box Policies by Type.
Source: National Employment Law Project

Studies have often found that employers routinely reject applicants with criminal histories at significantly higher rates than those without such histories. [2] [3] [4] Further, with decreased employment opportunities, persons with criminal histories are significantly more likely to commit crimes in the future. [5] Therefore, in order to assist people with criminal histories in their transition back into society, Ban-the-Box policies aim to remove this initial barrier to employment, allowing individuals to get their foot in the door with employers. While employers may still utilize background checks at later stages in the hiring process, Ban-the-Box policies aim to allow persons with criminal history to be given a fair chance to apply and interview for positions, thereby decreasing the probability that they will be quickly discarded due to their criminal history – irrespective of the nature of their offense.

Further, as minority individuals are disproportionately affected by our criminal justice system, outcomes for these individuals are of particular interest. [6] While the effects of Ban-the-Box policies are intended to benefit all persons with criminal histories, it is the goal of many policy advocates that Ban-the-Box policies benefit minority groups in particular due to minority groups’ disproportionate possession of criminal histories.

However, a growing body of research attacks this narrative, arguing that instead of increasing employment amongst minority groups, these policies actually decrease employment amongst these groups. [7] [8] This new body of research cites “statistical discrimination” as a primary driving force behind the unintended negative effects of Ban-the-Box policies. Under this model, without direct information concerning criminal history available, employers will rely on using an individual’s race and ethnicity to predict criminal histories. [9] In this way, as minority individuals are disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system, employers disproportionately assume that these individuals have criminal histories and deny them employment.

Using data from the Current Population Survey, Doleac and Hansen found that Ban-the-Box policies reduce the probability of employment for young, low-skilled black men by 3.4 percentage points and by 2.3 percentage points for young, low-skilled Hispanic men. [10] Further, after sending out 15,000 fictitious job applications, Agan and Starr found that the race gap in callbacks grows from 7% to 45% between white applicants and black applicants after the enactment of Ban-the-Box policies. [11]

Image: Effect of BTB on probability of employment for black men ages 25-34, no college degree. Source: Doleac and HansenImage: Effect of BTB on probability of employment for black men ages 25-34, no college degree.
Source: Doleac and Hansen

Image: Effect of BTB on probability of employment for black men ages 25-34, no college degree. Source: Doleac and Hansen

These studies often cite that given this evidence, it is time to abandon Ban-the-Box policies and move on to different tactics to improve employment opportunities for people with criminal histories. [12] However, even though the above evidence is convincing, it is not conclusive. For instance, both of the above studies contain possible errors in methodology or analysis.

For example, Agan and Starr’s research focused on callback rates for fictitious applications, rather than actual employment outcomes. Further, as noted by Shoag and Veuger, Doleac and Hansen’s results at best only apply to a small subset of the minority population rather than the entire non-white population. [13]

Further, several studies indicate results that run contrary to this negative interpretation of the effects of Ban-the-Box policies. For instance, researchers found that Ban-the-Box laws produce small reductions in recidivism.[14] In addition, in direct contrast to the above research, Craigie found that BTB policies have no statistically significant effect on low-skilled minority males. [14]

With this body of research in mind, it should be noted that if the explicit goal of BTB policies is to improve employment outcomes for young, low-skilled black individuals, then the success of these policies is difficult to determine. However, if the goal of these policies is simply to improve employment outcomes for those with criminal histories, then these policies are a major success with almost all researchers finding overall increases in employment for individuals with criminal histories. 

Given this body of seemingly contradictory research, it is probably too early to conclude that Ban-the-Box laws are ineffective. While these policies do not appear to be the silver bullet answer that advocates hoped for, they do appear to provide benefits with regard to recidivism and overall employment for those with criminal histories.

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  • The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.

References

  [1] Michelle Natividad Rodriguez and Beth Avery, “Ban the Box,” National Employment Law Project, May 2017. http://www.nelp.org/content/uploads/Ban-the-Box-Fair-Chance-State-and-Local-Guide.pdf

  [2] D. Pager, “The Mark of a Criminal Record,” American Journal of Sociology, 2003.

  [3] Henry Holzer, Steven Raphael, and Michael A. Stoll, “Perceived Criminality, Criminal Background Checks, and the Racial Hiring Practices of Employers,” Journal of Law and Economics, 2006.

  [4] Michael A. Stoll and Shawn Bushway, “Effect of Criminal Background Checks on Hiring Ex-Offenders,” Criminology and Public Policy, 2008.

  [5] Crystal S. Yang, “Local Labor Markets and Criminal Recidivism,” Journal of Public Economics, 2017.

  [6] Jessica S. Henry, “Criminal History on a ‘Need To Know’ Basis: Employment Policies that Eliminate the Criminal History Box on Employment Applications,” Justice Policy Journal, 2008.

  [7] Jennifer L. Doleac and Benjamin Hansen, “Does ‘Ban the Box’ Help or Hurt Low-Skilled Workers? Statistical Discrimination and Employment Outcomes When Criminal Histories are Hidden,” NBER Working Paper, 2016.

  [8] Amanda Agan and Sonja Starr, “Ban the Box, Criminal Records, and Statistical Discrimination: A Field Experiment,” University of Michigan Law – Law and Economics Research Paper Series, June 2016.

  [9] Henry Holzer, Steven Raphael, and Michael A. Stoll, “Perceived Criminality, Criminal Background Checks, and the Racial Hiring Practices of Employers,” Journal of Law and Economics, 2006.

  [10] Jennifer L. Doleac and Benjamin Hansen, “Does ‘Ban the Box’ Help or Hurt Low-Skilled Workers? Statistical Discrimination and Employment Outcomes When Criminal Histories are Hidden,” NBER Working Paper, 2016.

  [11] Amanda Agan and Sonja Starr, “Ban the Box, Criminal Records, and Statistical Discrimination: A Field Experiment,” University of Michigan Law – Law and Economics Research Paper Series, June 2016.

  [12] Jennifer L. Doleac and Benjamin Hansen, “Does ‘Ban the Box’ Help or Hurt Low-Skilled Workers? Statistical Discrimination and Employment Outcomes When Criminal Histories are Hidden,” NBER Working Paper, 2016.

  [13] Daniel Shoag and Stan Veuger, “The Labor Market Consequences of Bans on Criminal Record Screening in Employment Applications,” AEI Working Paper, 2017.

  [14] Terry-Ann L. Craigie, “Ban the Box, Convictions, and Public Sector Employment,” Working Paper, 2017.

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