In the United States, around 70 million men and women have a criminal record. They often struggle to find work: Only around 12% of employers say they would voluntarily hire someone with a record, and three out of four people recently released from prison don’t secure work within their first year out.
One of the most visible ways to address this dilemma was the Ban the Box movement, which emerged from a grassroots organizing campaign by All of Us or None in 2004. It calls for the removal of the section on many job applications that asks if the applicant has criminal record (the “box” is the box you check to indicate you do). The BTB movement aimed to remove one of the most significant roadblocks to employment for people who have interacted with the justice system: Having to report their past on an application, before they even can secure an interview.
BTB is an efficient solution, and in the years since 2004, it’s garnered a range of support. Around 150 cities and counties have adopted BTB policies for public jobs, as have 33 states. Numerous companies, like Facebook, Starbucks, and the Oregon-based Dave’s Killer Bread have removed the box from applications (the latter launched a foundation to encourage more businesses to do the same). Before leaving office, Barack Obama endorsed the movement.
But despite its popularity, some recent studies have found that BTB has unintended consequences. Specifically: Employers still don’t want to hire people with criminal records, so absent the box telling them who has one and who doesn’t, they default to guesswork, and simply don’t hire people they think might have a criminal record. The people they think might have a criminal record, it turns out, are black and Hispanic. The Brookings Institution explains:
“Black and Hispanic men are more likely than others to have been convicted of a crime: the most recent data suggest that a black man born in 2001 has a 32% chance of serving time in prison at some point during his lifetime, compared with 17% for Hispanic men and just 6% for white men. Employers will guess that black and Hispanic men are more likely to have been in prison, and therefore less likely to be job-ready.”
However, Connecticut College economics professor Terry-Ann Craigie, who studies justice reform issues, notes that these studies focus specifically on the effect of BTB hiring policies in the private sector. In the public sector, which accounts for 15% of all jobs, and where anti-discrimination policies are much more robust, Craigie’s research has found that BTB policies create an overall positive affect on employment for people with criminal records. In total, state and local BTB policies increase the odds of public employment for people with criminal records by 30%.
In a forthcoming study, Craigie conducted the first nationally representative analysis of BTB policies on employment in the public sector, looking specifically at its effects in the jurisdictions that have implemented these fair-hiring practices. Craigie pulled data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a nationally representative ongoing analysis of 9,000 people born between 1980 and 1984. She then used modeling to compare the public employment odds for people with and without criminal records, both before and after the implementation of BTB policies. Because BTB policies have been implemented in different jurisdictions at different points over the past decade or so, Craigie was able to draw clear lines in the data to see the precise effects of those policies, and also analyze how they played out on racial lines. In that respect, she found no evidence of discrimination in hiring as a result of BTB.
“We already know that incarceration and involvement with the criminal justice system has all these negative effects on peoples’ lives,” Craigie says. “I wanted to lead the charge and look at the policies that we have and are working, and publicize the good news about reforms that are in place.”
Craigie’s research points particularly to Durham, North Carolina where, after implementing BTB policies in 2011, the number of people with criminal records hired for public-sector jobs rose by 80%. BTB, her research demonstrates, is a logical extension of civil rights in public-sector hiring. While criminal records may be uncovered in background checks, ensuring that people have a clean slate when applying initially allows them to present themselves to employers as qualified workers, not just a checked box on an application. “It gives those with criminal records a fair chance at an interview, to sit face-to-face with a prospective employer,” Craigie says. “Research has shown that having that face-to-face conversation helps employers see people more as humans.” BTB helps people with criminal records open up a dialogue about their history with employers, so that the background check is not all they have to go off of. In Durham, 96% of people with records who were recommended for a job ended up securing it even after the background check went through, because of the more thorough process that BTB opens up.
And ultimately, Craigie wants her research to make clear that the failings of BTB that other studies have tracked are ultimately not endemic to the policy, but a consequence of entrenched racism that also constitutes illegal discrimination: The Equal Opportunity Employment Commission explicitly states that race cannot be used as a proxy for criminal status. In a blog post for the Brennan Center for Justice, Craigie spells it out:
“Ban the Box is being used a scapegoat for discriminatory hiring practices that have been going on for decades. Black men have always experienced it. Black men without criminal records are considerably less likely to receive interview callbacks than white men with criminal records. So are employers afraid of hiring someone with a criminal record? Or, are they afraid of hiring a black man with a criminal record?”
That’s something for employers to think about.