Think Ex-Felons Should Be Working? Then Give Them a Chance

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When people first apply for a job, they are typically asked if they have been convicted of a crime. Often, they are asked to check a box if they have.

But in recent years, the numbers of states and localities that “ban the box” has risen significantly. These laws, which have existed for two decades, prohibit employers from asking job candidates about their criminal history until closer to the end of the hiring process rather than on the initial application.

Waiting until later in the process means that employers consider a candidate’s qualifications for a job before factoring in any criminal history.

Thirty-one states and more than 150 cities and counties have adopted a ban-the-box law, according to the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy organization. These laws often apply to the hiring practices of state and local governments and government contractors. Eleven states and several localities have also mandated that private employers remove criminal-history questions from job applications.

In addition, the Barack Obama administration directed most federal agencies to delay inquiring about applicants’ criminal records until later in the hiring process. Congress is currently considering a bill that would prohibit the federal government and federal contractors from inquiring about (most) applicants’ criminal histories before a conditional employment offer has been extended.

These laws affect a large population. Estimates vary widely, but the National Employment Law Project reports that roughly 70 million U.S. adults have an arrest or conviction record. Over 600,000 people are released from prisons each year.

The evidence on ban-the-box policies thus far suggests they are effective. For example, a paper by economists Daniel Shoag (Case Western Reserve University) and Stan Veuger (my colleague at the American Enterprise Institute) finds that the laws increased employment in high-crime neighborhoods by up to 4 percent. This is a sizable increase.

Employment gains are largest in low-wage jobs and in the public sector. Shoag and Veuger point out that a disproportionate share of workers with criminal histories live in these neighborhoods and argue that the new policies have helped some of them get jobs they might not have been considered for in the past. 

Most of these laws are relatively recent, and the research of their effectiveness is still limited. The existing studies do not all agree.

A 2018 paper by economists Jennifer L. Doleac of Texas A&M University and Benjamin Hansen of the University of Oregon found that ban-the-box policies reduced employment by 5 percent among black men ages 25-34 who did not have a college degree.

Doleac and Hansen suggest that employers may respond to their inability to inquire about an applicant’s criminal background by choosing to interview fewer young, lesser-skilled black men because this group includes a relatively large number of ex-offenders.

Maybe. Doleac and Hansen also found that older, lesser-skilled black men saw an employment increase after the laws went into effect. So it could be that jobs have shifted to a group of workers with criminal histories — in this case, lesser-skilled black men over the age of 34 — after enactment of the new rules. Indeed, Doleac and Hansen’s results can be used to calculate a slight increase in overall employment among black men in this period.

The intended consequence of the policies is to get jobs flowing to ex-offenders. Of course, unintended consequences must be weighed against intended consequences, and the full range of policies to deal with unexpected problems that arise from the new laws should be considered. If, for example, ban-the-box statutes are leading to more discrimination against young black men, the solution seems to me to be better enforcement of federal civil-rights laws, rather than scrapping reforms on what employers can ask of new job applicants. 

Other potential unintended consequences include the possibility that employers who are no longer able to screen out applicants based on their ex-offender status will put more weight on education, experience or other factors, an emphasis that could work to the detriment of some groups of workers.

The first law of public policy applies: The change will create some winners and some losers. And more research is needed, especially on how private employers respond to ban-the-box laws.

Even though the unintended consequences are a concern, they should not stop the advance of this experiment. Ban-the-box addresses how the plumbing of the labor market — the concrete steps that employers take to hire workers — might systematically make it harder for millions of ex-offenders to get jobs. The labor market’s broken pipes are bad for the economy as a whole, suppressing workforce participation and impeding the process by which workers find the best jobs for their skills, talents and effort.

And a society that aggressively incarcerates so many offenders should be aggressive in facilitating the successful re-entry of ex-offenders.

Re-joining society after release from prison is hard. Many ex-offenders face an uncertain housing situation, and homelessness is a real risk. They often have little money and thin social and professional networks.

Stable employment is critical. It provides material security, reduces the likelihood of committing further crimes, and provides structure to the day. Just as important, a good job can be a cornerstone in building a new identity and sense of self for ex-offenders, and gives them the opportunity to contribute to society through their labor.

Society owes them that opportunity, and government can help achieve that goal by pursuing ban-the-box reforms. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Michael R. Strain is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is director of economic policy studies and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the editor of “The U.S. Labor Market: Questions and Challenges for Public Policy.”

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