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Are Efforts to Give Ex-Cons A Fair Shot at Work Working?

Many ex-convicts who pay their debt society find second chances are elusive when looking for work. But, are efforts to move the needle on this issue working?

The job search for former convicts often ends at the initial application screening process, when they are asked to check a box about their criminal history, dooming any chance of making their case to a real person. But, some employers are saying no to the box, while in April the White House launched the Fair Chance Business Pledge.

That pledge urges the private sector “to improve their communities by eliminating barriers for those with a criminal record and creating a pathway for a second chance,” the White House notes on its website. Nearly 20 companies joined with President Barack Obama in signing the pledge, including American Airlines, Facebook, Google, The Hershey Company, Prudential, Starbucks, Uber and Xerox.

Cornell University’s human resources department last month stopped asking job prospects about criminal convictions at the beginning of the employment application process, the Cornell Chronicle reports. The question is still asked, but only after an applicant has been vetted on their qualifications.

“Removing these questions from the beginning of the application process strengthens the focus of our managers on the skills and experiences of applicants as they move forward in the search process, providing a fair chance for all applicants to pursue employment opportunities at the university,” says Allan Bishop, associate vice president for human resources. Cornell is among a “growing number of states, municipalities and employers who are taking similar actions to reintegrate those who are returning citizens,” he notes.

The policy change does not apply to certain positions, including law enforcement, where employers can disqualify a candidate based on criminal record. But, applicants vying for non-law enforcement openings and who reveal their criminal history at the start of the application process can face unconscious bias that kills any chance of advancing in the hiring process.

There are an estimated 70 million people in the U.S. with a criminal record and many of them were juveniles or between 18-25 when first charged with a crime, says Rob Scott, director of the Cornell Prison Education Program.

“But now, even if it is decades later and even though some may have gone to prison for what would now be considered minor crimes, some studies have suggested that a majority of these applicants won’t even finish the application process once they get to the conviction question,” Scott says. “They know their criminal record works against them.”

Giving former convicts a better chance to advance beyond the initial application stage is part of a wider effort known as “ban the box,” according to the National Employment Law Project. More than 100 cities and counties in 24 states have adopted the approach for their job application processes and nine of those states have taken the extra step of banning the criminal conviction history question on applications for private employers.

At a recent job fair, Spike Mancuso, director for human resources for International Timber and Veneer in Pennsylvania, spoke of a man he hired who had been imprisoned for two decades, The Sharon Herald reports. “That was three years ago,” Mancuso says. “And the first thing he said to me was that he’d been in jail and decided it could either make him bitter or make him better, and he wanted to be better. I said right then, ‘You are hired.’” That worker won recognition from the state for transforming his life.

But, two studies find that “ban the box” laws are having the opposite effect and making it harder for blacks and Hispanics to get jobs, HR Morning reports. It’s also hurting those who have no criminal record. 

“Here’s why in a nutshell: It appears that when employers are inhibited from looking at applicants’ criminal records, they simply avoid the people they think are most likely to have such records--namely, African-American and Hispanic men,” HR Morning notes. “In other words, ‘ban the box’ laws appear to be increasing discrimination against minorities.”

One of those studies examined thousands of fake job applications that were turned into New York and New Jersey employers before and after “ban the box” laws were in effect. The fictitious applicants were randomly selected as being of a certain race and having a criminal history.

The study showed that before the law, white applicants only slight beat out black applicants with the same background in being asked to come in for an interview. After the law, the gap was four times higher.

The second study found that black and Hispanic men with no college degree were much more likely to not be employed. Jennifer Doleac, a co-author of that study and assistant professor of public policy and economics at the University of Virginia, concludes that “ban the box” should be repealed, according an article from Real Clear Markets.

“If you take information about criminal records away, what happens?” Doleac writes. “Employers are forced to use other information that is even less perfect to guess who has a criminal record…Employers will guess that black and Hispanic men are more likely to have been in prison, and therefore less likely to be job-ready.”

Instead, “advocates could push for policies that would provide more information to employers about ex-offenders’ job-readiness, rather than taking information away,” Doleac writes. “Better yet, they could help disadvantaged ex-offenders improve their job-readiness. The more employable the average ex-offender, the less cautious employers will be about hiring one.”

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