Prisoners and the Job Market: Should employers know about criminal records?
From THE ECONOMIST
DION got his first paying job at 14—which would be admirable, except that he was selling crack cocaine. He spent much of his early adulthood bouncing between prison and the streets of Yonkers, in New York state. Then, a few months out of one four-year spell behind bars, he discovered Greyston, a 35-year-old bakery. Founded by a Jewish engineer-turned-Buddhist monk, Greyston practices “non-judgment”. To get a job, people need only provide their names and telephone numbers, and turn up on time when a vacancy arises.
Most companies are far more discerning, particularly when it comes to people like Dion. Perhaps half of America’s private-sector employers ask job applicants to declare their criminal records, and two-thirds routinely run checks before taking people on. They see it as necessary due diligence. Unfortunately, checks that individual firms believe to be prudent are collectively bad for the 7m Americans who have spent time in prison and the 70m with a criminal record—numbers that may increase if Jeff Sessions, the hardline attorney-general, pushes through tougher sentencing rules. Keeping convicts away from jobs may also be harming America.
Nearly half of all ex-prisoners re-offend within their first year of release—a share that might be lower if more found honest work. The Centre for Employment Opportunities, a charity, places former convicts in 75-day work programmes. Participants are paid daily and receive help to find permanent jobs. A randomised controlled trial in which 977 former prisoners who came through the charity’s doors either received the full complement of services or very few suggested that the intervention cuts reoffending by 19 percentage points.
In an effort to force employers to change, 26 state and 150 municipal legislatures have adopted “ban the box” legislation that removes declarations of criminal history from job-application forms. On April 1st an executive order by Barack Obama’s administration came into effect, banning the box for all federal jobs, amounting to 250,000 jobs a year.
Banning the box may, however, have unfortunate consequences. Two American academics, Amanda Agan and Sonja Starr, have studied the effect of bans in New Jersey and New York. They created dummy job applicants with typically black names like Jermaine and Malcolm, and tracked how employers responded to those beside dummy applicants with typically white names, such as Cody and Scott. They found that whereas black men with invented criminal histories received more responses from companies after the change in the law, black men without criminal histories received fewer. Presumably, some employers began to interpret black-sounding names as a signal of criminality.
Two things might, however, persuade employers to change their minds. First, negligent-hiring lawsuits—in which a firm is sued for employing someone who commits a crime at work—are terrifying but rare. Second, it is just possible that former convicts might be more productive than the other candidates who apply for a particular job.
Jennifer Hickes Lundquist and Eiko Strader from the University of Massachusetts, along with Devah Pager of Harvard University, tracked the performance of 8,000 former felons who entered the American army after passing a screening process in the years between 2002 and 2009. They find that the ex-cons were slightly more likely to be undisciplined but were also promoted unusually quickly. Is that just a quirk of military culture? It would be worth finding out.