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Research Summary

The rapid increase in the nation's incarceration rate over the past decade has raised questions about how to reintegrate a growing number of ex-offenders successfully. Employment has been shown to be an important factor in reintegration, especially for men over the age of 27 years who characterize most individuals released from prison. This article explores this question using unique establishment-level data collected in Los Angeles in 2001. On average, we replicate the now-common finding that employer-initiated criminal background checks are negatively related to the hiring of ex-offenders. However, this negative effect is less than complete. The effect is strongly negative for those employers that are legally required to perform background checks, which is not surprising because these legal requirements to perform checks are paired with legal prohibitions against hiring ex-offenders. However, some employers seem to perform checks to gain additional information about ex-offenders (and thus hire more ex-offenders than other employers), and checking seems to have no effect on hiring ex-offenders for those employers not legally required to perform checks.

Policy Implications

One public policy initiative that has received considerable attention is to deny employers access to criminal history record information, which includes movements to “ban the box” that inquires about criminal history information on job applications. The assumption underlying this movement is that knowledge of ex-offender status leads directly to a refusal to hire. The results of this analysis show that policy initiatives aimed at restricting background checks, particularly for those firms not legally required to perform checks, may not have the desired consequences of increasing ex-offender employment. This result is consistent with an alternative view that some employers care about the characteristics of the criminal history record and use information about criminal history in a more nuanced, nondiscrete way.

Keywords: criminal background checks; employment; ex-offenders

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: 1: Professor and chair of public policy at the UCLA School of Public Affairs. 2: Associate professor of criminology at the School of Criminal Justice, University of New York at Albany.

Publication date: 2008-08-01

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