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The important consequences of Ban the Box: Second chances for all

Jakari Griffith | 4/6/2017, 6 a.m.

After presenting a paper on the relationship between criminal records and employment at an academic conference in 2015, a session attendee came up to me and shared privately that he had once been arrested for a marijuana charge.

Although he was an exceptionally bright young man and graduated from a prestigious law school, he experienced repeated rejections in his job search process and was unable to gain employment. Another attendee also shared that he scored a 740 out 800 on the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT), but had been passed over by several top-ranking MBA programs because of a criminal altercation he had while intoxicated. Because many elite business schools ask about criminal convictions — and in some instances adjudications withheld — he was unable to escape the burden of his criminal past.

In the United States, it is common to hear of these stories. Thousands of Americans face long employment odds because of mistakes committed at some point during their young adult years. These scenarios — being convicted of crime early in one’s life, and experiencing jail, probation, or fine — obscures the fact that many face a second penalty long after the original offense has been committed. That penalty manifests as the inability to find employment (or even attend college).

Recent analysis by the Society of Human Resources (SHRM), the nonprofit devoted to investigation of employment practices, found that approximately 69 percent of organizations solicit criminal history information from job applicants. This trend is troublesome to some observers who believe that criminal records information is being overused, causing many firms to overlook good candidates.

But is there an alternative that balances the rights of the applicant against the concerns for the employer? Yes. An increasing number of states and cities are adopting Ban the Box (BTB) policy, which asks employers to delay or refrain from making inquiries into an applicant’s criminal history. In 2000, just one state, Hawaii, adopted this legislation; by 2016, the number climbed to 24 states and 150 cities and counties. This policy not only adds integrity to the employment screening process, by compelling employers to focus on candidate skills and qualifications first, but it sets out guidelines that inform when criminal information should be considered during the selection process, if such information is considered at all.

Yet, the program is no panacea. Compliance with BTB is hard to verify and the degree to which it helps ex-offenders is largely unknown. According to one of the only published articles on the topic, a University of Michigan Law & Economics monograph, an examination of 15,000 fictitious online job applications submitted to employers in New York City and New Jersey found a disturbing pattern of discrimination in the number of interview callback rates. Specifically, applicants without criminal records received 61 percent more callbacks than applicants with criminal record. The employment landscape for ex-offenders appears rather grim.

However, there are good reasons to be hopeful. Following the Baltimore riots in 2015, The Washington Post notes that Johns Hopkins Hospital made a concerted effort to hire 174 people with criminal backgrounds, referring to it as “a strategic business decision to not overlook the best talent—even if that means hiring someone who needs a second chance.” Moreover, Hopkins hiring efforts have achieved fairly impressive results. Of the approximately 500 ex-offenders it hired over the past five years, all have shown higher retention rates than non-offenders for their first 40 months of employment. This represents a tremendous business opportunity, considering hospital staff turnover rates hovered around 17.1 percent nationally in 2015.

In short: Johns Hopkins Hospital has demonstrated to the business community it is possible (and even profitable) to engage ex-offenders as important human capital assets. If BTB policy had been available to the two conference attendees, then they might not have gone without employment for so long. Both men have gained meaningful employment (one was even admitted to a top MBA graduate program), but only after relocating to two different Ban the Box states. There are thousands of people across the United States living without access to any BTB protections. For their sake, we must continue the push for BTB nationally, so that Ban the Box means second chances for all.

Jakari Griffith is an assistant professor of Management at Bridgewater State University.