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Ban the Box: Helpful or Harmful?

A criminal record is a major obstacle to employment for formerly incarcerated people. In California, there are hundreds of barriers that hinder employment prospects and economic mobility for those with a criminal record. Additionally, formerly incarcerated people often face stigma and discrimination that can be equally restrictive and daunting.

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To mitigate these obstacles, in 2014, California voters passed Assembly Bill (AB) 218, or “Ban the Box” legislation, to reduce these barriers to reentry. Ban the Box (BtB) prohibits government employers from asking about an applicant’s criminal convictions on a job application. It is intended to reduce recidivism by employing formerly incarcerated people—particularly African American men—through a mandate that applicants are screened first based on their professional qualifications rather than immediately dismissed due to their criminal history. Ban the Box does not preclude the disclosure of one’s criminal conviction, but delays employers from accessing this information until later in the hiring process.

While Ban the Box legislation was intended to increase access to employment, a new study has revealed an unintended consequence. The study, conducted by researchers from University of Michigan Law School, sent 15,000 fictitious, entry-level job applications to employers before and after the implementation of Ban the Box legislation in New Jersey (2014) and New York (2015). The fictitious applicants were male and similar in age, education, and employment histories. The researchers used real names that connoted the race of these applicants.

The study found that callback rates for both African American and white applicants with felony convictions showed a slight increase after Ban the Box was implemented, suggesting that BtB may have helped its intended target – Black men with criminal records. However, they discovered that callback rates dropped dramatically for Black applicants overall after BtB took effect. Prior to BtB, white applicants were seven percent more likely to get a callback for a job interview than an African American applicant; post-BtB, white applicants were 45 percent more likely to get a callback. This suggests that BtB is hurting applicants of color who do not have criminal records.

Why are African American applicants without criminal convictions disproportionately receiving fewer callbacks from employers when BtB was supposed to level the playing field for all job seekers? Several studies may explain: a 2003 study on racial discrimination in the labor market found significant discrimination against African American applicants based on their names; another study, co-written by economists Roland Fryer and Steven Levitt, found that perceived “Black names are considered a strong predictor of socioeconomic status and a potential determinant of low productivity in the eyes of employers.

While there is no legislative fix for people’s implicit biases, Ban the Box is not necessarily ineffectual policy. BtB has increased access to employment for some formerly incarcerated people by giving them the opportunity to pitch their qualifications in person, and creating a greater sense of hope for those seeking employment. Numerous studies also show that Ban the Box and other fair-chance policies have proven effective in reducing recidivism, helping the economy, and increasing public safety, while also generating greater conversation among employers about the relevance of a criminal conviction. That being said, BtB legislation unintentionally reinforced racially discriminatory employment practices that have a detrimental impact on people of color without past criminal convictions. Therefore, policymakers and advocates should take the implications of this study seriously and work towards improving employment opportunities for people of color.  

Keywords: AB 218, Ban the Box, collateral consequences, employment, people of color, racial discrimination, Rebecca Wegley, recidivism, reentry, rehabilitation

Posted in Blog, Social Justice

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