Ban the Box Reforms and Statistical Discrimination

From the Sentencing Project (http://www.sentencingproject.org):

Some recent studies have found that Ban the Box reforms, which generally require employers to delay inquiring about criminal backgrounds, may disadvantage job applicants of color who do not have criminal histories. This is because in the absence of information about an applicant, employers may engage in statistical discrimination, assuming that black applicants—particularly young black men—have criminal histories because African Americans are overrepresented in the justice system. Most researchers advise caution in interpreting these study results.

Mike Vuolo, Sarah Lageson, and Christopher Uggen’s recent Twin-Cities-based experimental audit compared employer callback rates for young African American male entry-level jobseekers who answered “no” to a criminal history question with those who were not asked this question. They found that African American applicants experienced a lower callback rate from employers who did not ask about criminal histories than if they could answer “no” to those who asked, although this finding was not statistically significant. They also found that the black/white disparity in callback rates was greatest when employers did not ask about records compared to when they did. The study was conducted before Minnesota’s Ban the Box legislation was adopted, and published in Criminology & Public Policy.

Similarly, Amanda Agan and Sonja Starr’s study of New Jersey and New York City, described in a working paper, found that “the gap in employer callbacks between Black and White applicants grows significantly after Ban the Box.” Jennifer Doleac and Benjamin Hansen’s working paper reports that Ban-the-Box policies decreased the employment probability of young, low-skilled black and Hispanic men, while increasing employment among older, low-skilled black men and highly-educated black women.

Cautioning that their statistically insignificant results have not yet been replicated in other settings, Vuolo and colleagues note that while policymakers must strike the right balance between leveling the playing field for those with records and not harming those without, they should also recognize the “large proportion of African Americans who do possess criminal records.” Agan cautions that while these studies identify a barrier to eventual employment, “neither study could analyze eventual employment outcomes, only initial callbacks.”

Reflecting on these findings and on Noah Zatz’s commentary, Naomi Sugie asks, “Instead of wavering on Ban the Box policies because of resulting racial discrimination by some employers, shouldn’t we advocate strategies that address both of these forms of discrimination”? The National Employment Law Project echoes these critiques. Doleac, in contrast, suggests repealing Ban the Box reforms and replacing them with employability certificates that only give employers more information about the candidate’s job readiness.

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