Human Resources News & Insights

Does ‘ban the box’ spark discrimination? 2 studies’ surprising findings

The law of unintended consequences strikes again. 

This time, it’s with “ban the box” laws.

The intent of such laws, which have been adopted by nearly 100 cities and nearly two dozen states, is clear: provide individuals with criminal records a better chance of reentering the workforce.

After all, if employers can’t ask a job candidate about his or her criminal history until much later in the hiring process, the chances of the employer not putting much weight on the individual’s past convictions goes up.

But are “ban the box” laws having their indented effect?

The answer, according to two studies, is no.

Discrimination increasing?

“Ban the box” laws are designed, predominantly, to help African-American and Hispanic male applicants with criminal backgrounds get employment. Statistically, those are the two groups most likely to have been convicted of a crime.

But what recent studies have found is that “ban the box” laws are actually hurting the odds of African-American and Hispanic men obtaining jobs — for those with and without criminal records.

Here’s why in a nutshell: It appears that when employers are inhibited from looking at applicants’ criminal records, they simply avoid the people they think are most likely to have such records — namely, African-American and Hispanic men.

In other words, “ban the box” laws appear to be increasing discrimination against minorities.

Two studies, similar results

In one study, from Amanda Agan, a post-doctoral research associate in Economics and Industrial Relations at Princeton University, and Sonja Starr, a professor of law at the University of Michigan, thousands of fictitious job applications were submitted to employers in New Jersey and New York both before and after “ban the box” laws took effect. Race and criminal history were randomly assigned to each fictitious applicant.

The results?

  • Prior to the law’s kicking in, white applicants were called in for interviews only slightly more than African-American applicants with the same background.
  • After the law’s kicked in, that gap grew more than four times larger.

The second study, from Jennifer Doleac, an assistant professor of Public Policy and Economics at the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership & Public Policy, and Benjamin Hansen, an associate professor of Economics at the University of Oregon, set out to find the net effects of “ban the box” policies on the employment of young, low-skilled men.

The results? Doleac and Hansen found that after “ban the box” African-American and Hispanic men without college degrees were significantly less likely to be employed.

In explaining what has happened since “ban the box,” Doleac said:

“If you take information about criminal records away, what happens? Employers are forced to use other information that is even less perfect to guess who has a criminal record. … Employers will guess that black and Hispanic men are more likely to have been in prison, and therefore less likely to be job-ready.”

As a result, Doleac suggests that “ban the box” laws, as well-intentioned as they are, be repealed. In their place, she recommends that more emphasis be placed on helping ex-offenders improve their job-readiness, as well as providing info on their job-readiness to employers to reduce any uneasiness about hiring ex-offenders.

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