Other Voices

‘Ban the Box’ feels good, but it’s a misguided effort

People fill out application forms at a job fair in Michigan. The national unemployment rate is 5 percent.
People fill out application forms at a job fair in Michigan. The national unemployment rate is 5 percent. AP

“Ban the Box” is a feel-good effort to hold employers responsible for the government’s inability to effectively rehabilitate many criminal offenders. (See Nov. 12 editorial, “‘Ban the box’ gives offenders a fair chance.”)

This national movement to remove the criminal history inquiry (the “box”) from private employers’ employment applications and delay its presentation to the applicant until a later point in the employment process, often after an offer of employment has been extended.

Such proposals are being considered in Dallas and Austin.

The Obama administration has implemented the policy for federal agency hiring.

In San Francisco, employers hiring people who have to drive in the course of their jobs are unable to review applicants’ traffic citation history.

In New York City, employers must complete a city-mandated form documenting the employer’s consideration of eight separate factors regarding an applicant’s criminal history and provide a copy of the documentation to the applicant.

The Ban the Box movement is creating a new protected class of employee: criminal offenders.

The underlying, and faulty, theory is that employers routinely disregard applicants with any criminal history, regardless of the details.

The allegation is that employers view a 10-year-old shoplifting conviction the same as a 2-year-old sexual assault conviction.

As I’ve worked with hundreds of employers across the country, I have not found this blanket exclusion of former offenders to be common.

Indeed, our clients knowingly hire former offenders every day.

Nationally, more than 50 percent of prison inmates are re-incarcerated within three years of release.

This is a staggering and expensive societal problem.

Ban the Box advocates claim that employers are contributing to recidivism because, as popular wisdom goes, former offenders who cannot (or will not) find work are more likely to commit new offenses.

The few studies on the issue of criminal recidivism and employment don’t point to a reduced risk of recidivism if a former offender finds work.

In fact, a 2010 Florida State University study involving Texas prison parolees found “obtaining employment was not associated with a significant decrease in likelihood of re-incarceration.”

The crafters of the Ban the Box movement have been artful in their rhetoric.

Even the movement’s name paints employers in an unfair light, suggesting that the criminal history inquiry on the employment application is merely a checkbox and that those who check the box are not given any opportunity to provide details about their offense history.

The Star-Telegram’s Editorial Board fell for this rhetorical sleight of hand in a Nov. 12 editorial in support of banning the box:

“Some hiring managers see a criminal conviction box checked and immediately remove that application from consideration,” the editorial said.

“The ex-offender never has a chance to present a case for what they can do. The hiring manager never even knows how long ago the conviction was or what it was for, never considers the applicant’s qualifications, never sees the possibilities.”

Most employment applications don’t even include a check box.

Rather, they ask applicants to provide relevant information about their criminal history, including the offense description, outcome and dates.

Ban the Box advocates unfairly oversimplify employers’ processes for fairly evaluating applicants’ criminal history, many of which have been in place since the 1975 Green v. Missouri Pacific federal court decision.

Banning the box only delays the decision to eliminate a candidate from employment consideration.

If an employer isn’t going to hire someone because of the risk associated with past conduct, the level of charm a candidate brings to the interview should not and typically will not change the ultimate outcome.

The delayed inquiry just wastes the time of the employer and candidate without yielding any societal benefit.

Without doubt, we have real criminal justice issues to solve.

Improving access to education and drug treatment, rethinking overly harsh mandatory sentencing guidelines and better diversion programs for first-time offenders should all be on the table.

Banning the box, however, unfairly places the burden, expense and blame for our crime problems on employers.

Mike Coffey owns Imperative Information Group, a national background screening company based in Fort Worth.