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Employers May Be Losing Good Workers by Screening Out Ex-Felons

May 6, 2016
Some 23 states, over 100 cities and some of the largest U.S. private employers including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Corp., and Koch Industries Inc. have already taken steps to remove barriers in the hiring of those with a criminal record.  

For millions of U.S. job applicants with a criminal record, just making it past the screening stage of the hiring process is a challenge. New research shows that could be the employer's loss.

Using the U.S. military — the nation's largest employer — as a test case to evaluate the work performance of felons upon re-entering the job market, researchers from Harvard University and the University of Massachusetts Amherst found they were no more likely than other enlistees to be discharged for the negative reasons employers often assume, such as misconduct or poor performance. What's more, they were actually promoted at a slightly higher rate and to higher ranks than those with clean criminal records.

One explanation as to why relates to the additional review process felons undergo to secure a criminal military waiver. The holistic screening takes into account the nature of the crime and time since conviction, along with any compensating skills and experience, and could result in the selection of above average recruits. The other possibility is that, having received a second chance of sorts, felons are more committed to their work and getting promoted given the scarcity of employment opportunities elsewhere.

"We see these results as very promising in terms of thinking about how, given appropriate screening, those with felony-level criminal records seem to make very promising employees," said Devah Pager, a Harvard sociologist who co-authored the study with Jennifer Lundquist and Eiko Strader from UMass Amherst. "Employers may be missing out on a huge amount of talent by screening out all those with felony-level records."

The study is one of the first to assess the actual performance of felons in the workplace, according to the authors. Previous research has focused on the employment barriers themselves that result from a criminal record. A 2003 study by Pager, for example, showed that ex-offenders are roughly half as likely to receive a callback relative to equally qualified applicants with no criminal record, and that black candidates suffer disproportionately. The study found that whites with criminal records received more interview callbacks than blacks without past arrests.

The new research, which used the Freedom of Information Act to collect administrative data on 1.3 million ex-offender and non-offender soldiers who enlisted between 2002 and 2009, lends support to the so-called "Ban the Box" campaign spreading around the country that aims to persuade employers to remove the check box on hiring applications that asks candidates whether they have been convicted of a crime. Supporters of the campaign say the box unnecessarily narrows the pool of qualified applicants.

Some 23 states, over 100 cities and some of the largest U.S. private employers including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Corp., and Koch Industries Inc. have already taken steps to remove barriers in the hiring of those with a criminal record.  The federal government last week proposed a rule that would prohibit federal agencies from asking about a job applicant's criminal history until after making a conditional employment offer.

The "Ban the Box" campaign "isn't saying that employers shouldn't do criminal background checks," Pager said. "It's just saying to first focus on skills and qualifications that are relevant to the job."

If adopted nationwide, such measures could help lift employment barriers for millions of ex-offenders. Today, the U.S. incarcerated population is about four-and-a-half times larger than in 1980, with more than 2.2 million people held in federal and state prisons and county jails in 2014, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Even after adjusting for population growth, the incarceration rate grew by more than 220% from 1980 to 2014, according to a White House Council of Economic Advisers report issued last week. More than 600,000 individuals are released from prison each year.

Given the increase of job seekers with criminal pasts, Pager sees legitimate consequences for the broader labor market if otherwise qualified candidates are weeded out.

"We know that finding a quality, steady job following release from prison is one of the strongest predictors of desistance from crime," she said. "For that reason alone, reintegrating ex-offenders and supporting employment as a key part of that process is in everyone's interest."

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