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Laws Passed To Help Ex-Cons Get Jobs Might Be Doing The Opposite

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Anders Hagstrom Justice Reporter
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Lawmakers in more than 25 states have passed legislation prohibiting employers from asking for an applicant’s criminal history, claiming the ban would help ex-convicts get jobs, but new research is showing that it may do the opposite.

Known as “ban the box” laws, referring to the checkbox on applications denoting criminal history, the legislation theoretically lets ex-convicts fly under the radar of employers, allowing them to be judged based on competence rather than their criminal history. Despite the goal, however, research from economists Jennifer Doleac of the University of Virginia and Ben Hansen at the University of Oregon shows that the laws may only be making employers more discriminatory.

“If employers don’t want to hire people with criminal records, and you tell them they aren’t allowed to know this information anymore, they aren’t simply going to throw up their hands and just pick people at random. Instead, they are going to try and guess who has a criminal record and avoid wasting their time with those people,” Doleac told Quartz Media on Monday.

Doleac argued that when employers don’t know whether an applicant has a criminal record, they will resort to stereotypical discrimination, which she said has a disparate negative impact on racial and ethnic minorities.

Doleac’s and Hansen’s research showed that employment rates for young black men fell by 5 percent after a state banned the box. They also cited research from the Boston Federal Reserve Bank investigating the effect of the legislation on Massachusetts. It found that employment rates for all ex-cons had fallen by nearly 4 percent 1.5 years after the ban the box reforms took effect.

“This is consistent with the economic theory that job search is basically a matching exercise where employers and employees are trying to find good matches, and if you take information away it’s just harder to find those matches,” Doleac said.

Rather than withholding information from employers, Doleac argued that lawmakers should incentivize businesses to employ ex-cons or use re-entry programs to make ex-cons more employable after prison. She also recommended employability certificates, a certificate offered by some states to ex-cons who can prove in court that they have been effectively rehabilitated.

A study from the University of South Carolina showed that applicants with criminal histories received callbacks at the same rate as other applicants if they also had an employability certificate.

“It’s important to remember that it’s not ban the box or nothing. It’s a matter of ban the box or something else,” Doleac said. “The implication of this research is not that we shouldn’t try to help people with criminal records, it’s that there are better ways to do it.”

Despite the research, many states are pushing ahead with the bans. Indiana, Pennsylvania and Vermont each had ban the box laws take effect this month.

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