Sonja B. Starr

'Ban the Box' Laws Could Negatively Impact Minorities, according to a study by Agan and Starr

an In The Media Reference

"'Ban the Box' Laws Could Negatively Impact Minorities" - U.S. News. 9/10/2019.

Agan and University of Michigan Law School professor Sonja Starr sent 15,000 online job applications from fictitious candidates to private employers who asked about criminal history in New Jersey and in New York City both before and after each area began enforcing ban the box laws.

They sent each employer two identical applications, one from a fictitious young white male and one from a fictitious young black male, using distinctive, popular first and last names to indicate the applicant's race. They found that, prior to ban the box laws, applicants with white-seeming names received approximately 7% more callbacks than applicants with the same qualifications but black-seeming names, but this gap increased to 45% after ban the box laws went into effect. Further, Agan says more fictitious applicants of both races with criminal records were getting called back for interviews, but more black men without criminal records weren't getting a call.

"And then it becomes a policy question: How do you want to trade off these two - this cost and this benefit?" Agan says.

She points out another piece of research missing from the puzzle: Because her study used fictitious applicants, she couldn't test who would actually get the job at the end of the hiring process.

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All of Us or None's Flores says he knows a man who got a job in California but was let go after a couple of weeks, once his employers ran a background check and learned about his arrest record. Flores was helping the man, who was never convicted after the arrest, through a program that supports people with criminal charges and their families. Flores says this type of situation happens often, but he still considers ban the box to be beneficial because former offenders can get an initial interview based solely on their qualifications. If they're asked about their record later, they have a chance to explain their situation and have a dialogue.

So why are lawmakers passing ban the box with such little research around the topic, and when the few studies that exist suggest such major negative consequences?

"It's something relatively inexpensive to implement - it's not a line out of anybody's budget to implement ban the box - and it feels like you've done something where you've tried to help this group," Agan says. "I think that's kind of what keeps this momentum going, and there are large advocacy groups (pushing for it)," she adds.

As for possible racial discrimination, Flores argues that it also existed before ban the box and is a separate issue.

Employers eliminating job applicants based on race "is the byproduct of something, but it's not something that we cause or something that we support, obviously," Flores says. "So it's a little bit unfair to say ban the box doesn't work because of this. Ban the box does work. What doesn't work is that employers are finding loopholes or ways to continue to use discrimination."

Todd Clear, a professor of criminal justice at Rutgers University, says he's still forming his opinion on ban the box laws. He says he thinks removing laws that continue to punish people with former criminal convictions is a step in the right direction, but he is also aware of the studies identifying possible negative consequences.

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"I'm not convinced that these studies all prove that ban the box is a uniformly bad idea, but I think they certainly point to the problem that reformers are wanting to provide job opportunities to people with criminal histories and ban the box might be the wrong mechanism (to do this)," he says.

Clear points to alternative ideas, including one where the government would pay employers to hire people with criminal records. Another possibility: issuing certificates of rehabilitation to show that an individual is ready to re-enter society after completing his or her sentence.

As lawmakers continue to evaluate ban the box, Michael Mueller-Smith, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan's Department of Economics, is working with the U.S. Census Bureau to collect administrative records from police, sheriffs, criminal courts and departments of corrections to build a database of people's interactions with the criminal justice system. He says this is the data necessary to determine the significance of ban the box.

Mueller-Smith says the project, currently funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Science Foundation, is going to take another 15 to 20 years to complete, partly because he has to fit all of the data from all of the localities into a standard format. Since 2016, he's collected data from eight states.

"(Right now) we just don't know who has a felony conviction, and without being able to identify that population, we can't determine who might be benefiting and who might be losing out," Mueller-Smith says.

Deidre McPhillips contributed to this article.


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Casey Leins, Staff Writer

Casey Leins is a staff writer and producer at U.S. News & World Report.

Tags: prisons, prison sentences, crime, employment, Applying, California, discrimination

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