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Study Shows “Ban-the-Box” Policies May Result in Racial Bias by Employers

by David Reutter

Increasingly, criminal justice reformers are pushing for “ban-the-box” policies, ordinances and statutes, which are intended to eliminate from job applications the box that asks, “Have you been convicted of a felony?” [See: PLN, March 2017, p.26; Oct. 2014, p.46]. Many jurisdictions have adopted such policies, but a new study found they may help those with felony records while hurting people of color who lack criminal histories.

Twenty-three states have passed ban-the-box laws for public government jobs; nine apply the law to private employers, too. In November 2015, President Obama directed federal agencies to remove the felony question box from their job applications. [See: PLN, Jan. 2016, p.41].

Sonja Starr, a professor of law at the University of Michigan, and Amanda Agan, a professor of economics at Prince­ton, conducted a study to determine the effectiveness of ban-the-box policies. The study examined callback rates for 15,000 job applicants seeking actual low-skill, entry-level positions in a variety of industries at 4,300 businesses.

The job positions were located in New Jersey and New York, both before and after those states enacted ban-the-box laws in 2015. The fictitious applicants were 21-22 years old and randomly assigned race and criminal records with similar educational backgrounds and employment histories. They used real names suggestive of one race or another.

Before ban-the-box laws were enacted, 39 percent of employers asked about the job applicants’ criminal history. Of those, employers called black applicants back at a rate of 10.5 percent and whites at 11.2 percent. After the laws went into effect, the study found callback rates for blacks dropped but they rose for whites, widening the racial callback gap from 7 percent to 45 percent.

Without criminal records as an initial indicator of who is a more attractive job candidate under ban-the-box policies, employers may be relying on demographic characteristics such as race and gender. The most recent statistics indicate black men born after 2001 have a 32% chance of serving prison time, compared with 17% for Hispanics and 6% for whites. Thus, employers may be guessing as to a job applicant’s criminal history based upon those percentages, which translates into racial bias.

“There’s lots of research showing that Americans in general have implicit biases – draw assumptions that associate blackness with criminality,” said Prof. Starr. “And we think that assumption is meaning that when a black man with a criminal record isn’t able to tell the employer that he doesn’t have a criminal record, that at least some employers are going to hold that against him.”

The ban-the-box movement, however, has been effective in other ways.

“It clearly has benefits for people with records, and policy makers might decide that those benefits are important enough to justify the law,” Starr added. “But our [research] results are very worrisome in terms of the effects for black male applicants, especially those without criminal records.”  


Sources: Mother Jones,,

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