Should employers force ex-cons to disclose their criminal past?

The "ban the box" movement aims to help Americans with prior arrests or convictions get a foot in the door with employers, but new research is calling into question whether the policy might do more harm than good.

Ban-the-box policies prevent employers from asking a job applicant about their criminal history until later in the hiring process, and the effort has been adopted by more than 24 states around the U.S., along with more than 100 cities and counties. The idea behind the policy is to give all Americans a fair chance at landing a job interview, regardless of what mistakes they might have made -- and paid for -- in the past.

What if the policies hurt more people than they help? That's the question posed by new research from University of Virginia professor Jennifer L. Doleac and University of Oregon professor Benjamin Hansen, who consider whether employers in locations with ban-the-box policies end up avoiding interviewing groups of people who they believe are most likely to have criminal backgrounds. Young black and Hispanic men, they found, are less likely to hired when ban the box policies are enacted, although some advocates are taking issue with the findings.

"What they are trying to cement, if we take them at face value, is that employers are racial profiling. They are focusing on young African-American men and profiling them as criminals," said Maurice Emsellem, program director at the National Employment Law Project, in questioning the methodology and conclusions of the new research. "In our view, that's not a ban-the-box issue. It's more systemic and deals with racism in the hiring process."

Some demographic groups already face challenges when searching for work, with unemployment rates for Americans with only a high school or less remaining much higher than those with college degrees. The jobless rate for black men over 20 years old stands at 8.2 percent, or more than double the rate for white men of the same age.

Throw in a criminal conviction or arrest, and the challenges can become even more daunting for job applicants who are black, Hispanic or lack a college education. The study, which is published at the National Bureau of Economic Research, concludes that employers that are barred from asking about criminal histories in turn "statistically discriminate against demographic groups that are likely to have a criminal record."

After running an analysis on data for more than 855,000 men between the ages of 25 to 34, the researchers found that ban-the-box policies decrease the probability of being employed by 3.4 percentage points for young black men without college degrees and by 2.9 percent for young Hispanic men without college educations.

"Advocates for these policies seem to think that in the absence of information, employers will assume the best about all job applicants," the researchers wrote. "This is often not the case."

Yet NELP's Emsellem says his organization doesn't agree with research's methodology, since ban-the-box policies largely regulate public sector hiring, such as government jobs, which is a small portion of the job market.

"They assume there is a spillover effect to private sectors," he said. "That belies any experience we have. There is zero reason for a private employer to change" their policies unless there's a regulation or law telling them to do so.

Interestingly, it's not all bad news for would-be job applicants, since the researchers found that ban-the-box policies actually led to higher employment for both black men and women without a college degree who are between the ages of 35 and 64.

Regardless of what one thinks about ban-the-box efforts, the issue of how Americans with arrests or convictions records can gain a foothold in the economy is only growing larger. Almost one-third of adults now have some sort of record, or about 70 million adults, according to NELP.

There's some evidence that people with a prior arrest or conviction may be better bets for employers than those with clean records, according to research published earlier this year from Harvard University professor Devah Pager and University of Massachusetts Amherst professor Jennifer Lundquist. In examining the performance of 1.3 million military service personnel, both with and without criminal records, they found that ex-offenders outperformed when it came to promotions and were no more likely to be discharged from service for negative reasons than those without records.

The ban-the-box movement "has shifted the debate and created real cultural change when it comes to humanizing people with records," Emsellem notes. "That's the biggest part of the challenge for employers. [Candidates] are more than this event that took place many years ago, and that's especially for folks who served their time. They have moved on with their lives but they are often stuck with the stigma of a record."