Ban the box

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: helping former prisoners find jobs.

NICK EICHER, HOST: Criminal-justice reform is an idea that achieved a rare feat: it brought together Republicans and Democrats in Washington. Back in December, President Trump signed a bill called the First Step Act. One of the things it does is reduce some mandatory minimum prison sentences. It also expands job training and other programs aimed at keeping ex-cons from returning to a life of crime.

Reform advocates argue the First Step Act needs more steps. One of the biggest problems for those out on parole is finding a job.

REICHARD: One policy that tries to address the problem is called Ban-the-Box. As in, ban that box on job applications that asks you to check it off if you have a criminal conviction in your past.

The policy requires that employers ask that question later in the hiring process. The idea is to encourage employers to consider qualifications first, before just writing off the applicant due to criminal history.

But does that really work?

WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg spoke with prison reform advocates to find out.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: Over the past decade, 34 states and over 150 cities and counties have passed ban-the-box bills. And advocates are pushing for more. The federal government is also working to implement ban-the-box policies in its hiring practices.

Since many of these laws are relatively new, it’s difficult to gauge their effectiveness. But some studies are beginning to paint a picture.

Stanley Veuger is an economic scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He co-authored a study that looked at a handful of high-crime neighborhoods in cities or states with ban-the-box legislation.

VEUGER: We see what happens to people who live in high crime neighborhoods, which is what we use as sort of a proxy for whether people have a criminal record because those two things are very directly related.

Veuger’s research found that in these ban-the-box neighborhoods, employment increased by up to 4 percent.

The study also found ban-the-box areas draw workers. When a high-crime neighborhood was near a ban-the-box state or city, more people commuted to where the law is enforced.

VEUGER: We see the commuter flows went up by a similar magnitude.

Veuger says his study’s findings are difficult to extrapolate into national numbers because it only looked at a handful of neighborhoods. But he says the study’s results show the policy’s promise.

VEUGER: There may be as many as 50 or 60 million people with a criminal record. and so if you take 1 percent of that, that’s, hundreds of thousands of people.

But not all studies agree on the positive effects of ban-the-box policies. Jennifer Doleac is an economics professor at Texas A&M University. She co-authored a study last year that examined nationwide employment data in ban-the-box states and cities. Her research suggests the policy may increase racial discrimination.

DOLEAC: So using data through 2015, we found that employment for a young black man without a college degree fell by about 5 percent. And employment for young Hispanic men without a college degree fell by about 3 percent.

Doleac says when employers can’t initially ask about criminal history, they are more likely to guess. When employers guess, they use stereotypes.

DOLEAC: Because of large racial disparities, in terms of who has a criminal record, employers might guess that young black men in particular are more likely to have a recent conviction. And it actually seems to be making racial disparities worse by making it more difficult for young black and Hispanic men without criminal records to find jobs.

Doleac argues while ban-the-box legislation is well-intentioned, it doesn’t get at the root causes of public stigma toward ex-criminals.

DOLEAC: For a very long time we’ve been locking people up with no investment in rehabilitation or education or job training or anything else. And then we blame employers for not wanting to hire these folks when they get out. And I think that we need to shift the blame from employers to society, and really make the investment that we need to help the folks that we’ve been neglecting.

As an alternative to ban-the-box, Doleac suggests judges issue certificates of  rehabilitation to released prisoners. The certificates would act as a trustworthy job reference.

Craig DeRoche heads advocacy and public policy at Prison Fellowship Ministries. He agrees that ban-the-box legislation isn’t the only answer to improving how society treats ex-criminals. But he says it’s played an important role in starting a nationwide conversation and pushing states to rollback regulations restricting released prisoners from certain professions.

DEROCHE: There are some very appropriate and well reasoned restrictions. But many professions exclude people from their profession where the criminal record has no direct correlation to what it is they do.

While Prison Fellowship supports the government implementing Ban-the-Box legislation, DeRoche says the ministry would rather see private businesses willingly adopt the policy.

DEROCHE: What we’re trying to do is lead an effort for cultural change, so the businesses buy into this change. And they actually roll up their sleeves and are proactive in it rather than looking at it as a top down government regulation itself.

DeRoche says Christians should be at the front of those efforts for cultural change.

DEROCHE: It’s reminding Christians that giving somebody a second chance isn’t a new value for us. It’s actually the primary value of what we received in the cross and it’s helping us go back to living out those values.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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