Employment after Incarceration and Fair Chance Employment Policies

Under Professor Sandra Smith, I'm managing a survey and interview study exploring the impacts of Fair Chance Policies like Ban the Box on the perceptions and experiences of those formerly incarcerated.  Data collection is underway and we intend to co-author a short book on this research.

Project Summary

An estimated 1 in 3 adults in the United States has a criminal record. Unlike racial bias in hiring, employer preferences for applicants without a criminal record generally do not violate federal law. And studies confirm that having a criminal background is a significant barrier to employment. For instance, Pager, Western and Sugie’s (2009) and Pager, Western, and Bonikowski’s (2009) studies using employer response rates to fake job applicants showed that having a criminal record reduced the likelihood of a callback by almost half, from 28 percent for applicants without a criminal record to 15 percent for those with one.

In response to these barriers, various levels of government have implemented policies to improve the job opportunities of those with a criminal record. The most commonly known effort are “ban the box” (BTB) policies preventing employers from conducting criminal background checks until late in the job application process. Over 150 cities and counties and 34 states and Washington DC have adopted “ban the box” (BTB) policies preventing employers from conducting criminal background checks until late in the job application process. At the same time the US Department of Labor has started providing employers $2,400 in tax relief for each qualifying hire no later than 1 year after conviction or release from prison. State and County governments, community merchants, and larger corporations including Walmart, Target, the Home Depot, and Koch Industries Inc. have also voluntarily adopted BTB policies and and/or are actively working to provide job opportunities to formerly incarcerated people and applicants.

A limited number studies have gauged the effect of such policies on employer behavior by comparing the call-back and hiring rates for applicants with criminal records before and after the policies’ implementation. This research has shown the policy increases in callbacks and hiring for people with criminal records. However, this research also concludes that ban the box policies reduces the likelihood that employers call back or hire young black and Latino men within the private sector. This suggests that when a person’s criminal history is not present, employers may make hiring decisions based on their perception of the likelihood the applicant has a criminal history.  Yet in the public sector, no change in racial bias has been detected after the policies implementation.

While existing research has examined the impacts of this set of policies on employer hiring decisions, none have explored the impacts  on the perceptions and experiences of the formerly incarcerated who are seeking employment or currently employed.  Underlying such policy interventions is the assumption that if public policy could change employers’ patterns of discriminatory behavior against the justice-involved, then the latter’s chances of employment would be much greater, and they would be more likely to find jobs, thus facilitating a smoother path to re-entry. This perspective says little, however, about the effect of such policies on how the justice-involved search for work. One imagines that such policies might lead to optimism among the justice-involved, but what if they are unaware of such policies, ignorant about its nature and scope, untrusting of employers’ responses even if appreciative of policymakers’ intentions, and generally unconvinced about such policies’ overall effectiveness for any number of reasons? 

Given these possibilities, we pose the following set of questions: To what extent and how do fair chance employment policies affect patterns of job search among men and women with criminal records? To what extent do the justice involved know of such policies? What do they know of about these policies? How do they believe them to be impacting employer's decisions? How does discrimination persist? To what extent do these policies affect their own search behaviors? And how does race, class, and gender inform the justice-involved’s responses to this policy intervention?

This project is of empirical significance and has implications for theory and public policy. To date, no study has examined how such policies affect the job search behaviors of those presumed to benefit from them, and so this is the first that we know of to tackle this question. Theoretically, this project addresses the unintended consequences of public policies developed to impact the behaviors of one targeted group might also shape the behaviors, indirectly, of another group. In terms of public policy, this study considers the impact of public policy on those indirectly targeted by them.

Methodological Overview

To answer our research questions regarding the impact of fair chance employment policies on the employment and job searches of the formerly incarcerated we will conduct a survey and series of in-depth interviews.

The first phase of the project will be a 20-25 minute survey conducted with 350 participants. Participants will be at county probation offices in Alameda and San Francisco Counties. After analyzing the survey data, we will invite a select number of those who took the survey to participate in a longer interview. This second phase will be comprised of hour-long interviews conducted with 50 participants.

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