Deep Background

Ban-the-box laws on background screening can backfire for minorities

Two academic studies raise serious questions about the advisability of well-intended “ban-the-box” laws, which bar employers from asking job applicants about criminal convictions in initial job applications.  An experiment by researchers at the University of Michigan and Princeton found that ban-the-box laws — enacted by about 24 states, dozens of localities, and most federal agencies — are having the unintended consequence of worsening bias against African-American job applicants.  The researchers  sent 15,000 fictitious online job applications for entry-level positions in New York and New Jersey, some before the adoption of ban-the-box laws, and some afterwards.  Requiring applicants to disclose their criminal histories hurts the job prospects of people with records, researchers Sonja B. Starr and Amanda Y. Agan said. Applicants that did not report a criminal past received 62 percent more callbacks than those that did (45% in New Jersey; 78% in New York City).  But after ban-the-box was adopted and employers didn’t know whether someone had a record, racial differences in callbacks increased dramatically.  Before ban-the-box, white applicants received 7 percent more callbacks than equally qualified African-American applicants; after ban-the-box, the racial discrepancy jumped to 45 percent.  “Ban-the-Box is often presented as a strategy for increasing black men’s access to employment,” University of Michigan law professor Starr said in a U of M statement.  “Unfortunately, we think our results strongly suggest that when it comes to this goal, it has backfired.”  In a separate study,  Jennifer Doleac of the University of Virginia and Benjamin Hansen of the University of Oregon compared employment rates in jurisdictions before and after ban-the-box measures became law.  They found that the likelihood of employment for young black men without a college degree decreased by 3.4%, and for young Hispanic men without a college degree, it dropped by 2.3%.

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