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Ban the box laws: When employers can't ask about criminal history

(Becky McCray Flickr)

“Ban the Box” is a national campaign led by civil rights groups to prevent employers from asking about criminal histories on job applications and other forms of initial job screening. The goal is to delay background checks until after an employer considers an applicant’s skills, training and job experience and determines whether he or she is qualified for the position. Advocates argue that “Ban the Box” (BTB) policies improve hiring rates for those with criminal backgrounds and reduce racial disparities in employment.

In recent years, numerous cities, counties and states have adopted or considered policies that prohibit employers from asking applicants to check a box to indicate whether they have been arrested or convicted of a crime. In 2016, several states, including Louisiana, Tennessee and Vermont, adopted BTB laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislators. In March 2018, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed the Washington Fair Chance Act. Only certain types of employers – for example, those that provide care for children – are exempt from that law.

We’ve gathered research on BTB initiatives, including potential impacts in areas such as crime and employee discrimination. Below, we provide a sampling of research articles, along with other resources that may be helpful to journalists covering this topic.



“Do Ban the Box Laws Increase Crime?”

Sabia, Joseph J.; Mackay, Taylor; Nguyen, Thanh Tam; Dave, Dhaval M. National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, March 2018. No. 24381.

Summary: This study asserts it’s the first to estimate the effect of BTB laws on crime. The findings suggest a link between these laws and a rise in property crime committed by Hispanic men. The laws’ adoption is associated with a 16.5 percent increase in property crimes committed by Hispanic men between the ages of 25 and 34 and a 17.5 percent increase in property crimes among Hispanic men aged 35 to 64. Researchers found no evidence of increased crime for black men or non-Hispanic white men.


“Ban the Box, Criminal Records, and Racial Discrimination: A Field Experiment”

Agan, Amanda; Starr, Sonja. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, February 2018. DOI: 10.1093/qje/qjx028.

Summary: To investigate the effect of BTB policies, researchers submitted about 15,000 online job applications representing fictitious applicants to employers in New Jersey and New York City before and after such policies were adopted. Fake applicants were young men with “a distinctly black or distinctly white name” and varied in terms of their felony conviction status. The researchers’ findings suggest BTB policies encourage racial discrimination. Employers gave white applicants 7 percent more callbacks than black applicants prior to the adoption of such policies.  Afterward, white applicants got 43 percent more callbacks than black applicants. “We believe that the best interpretation of these results is that employers are relying on exaggerated impressions of real-world racial differences in felony conviction rates,” the study’s authors wrote.


“Does ‘Ban the Box’ Help or Hurt Low-Skilled Workers? Statistical Discrimination and Employment Outcomes When Criminal Histories are Hidden”

Doleac, Jennifer L.; Hansen, Benjamin. National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, July 2016. No. 22469.

Summary: This study suggests that black and Hispanic men between the ages of 25 and 34 who do not have a college degree are less likely to be employed under BTB policies. Young, low-skilled black men are 5.1 percent less likely, on average, to be employed after such policies are adopted. Young, low-skilled Hispanic men are 2.9 percent less likely to be employed, on average.


“The Effect of Hawaii’s Ban the Box Law on Repeat Offending”

D’Alessio, Stewart J.; Stolzenberg, Lisa; Flexon, Jamie L. American Journal of Criminal Justice, 2015. DOI: 10.1007/s12103-014-9251-9.

Abstract: “The social stigma accompanying an official criminal record hinders the ability of an individual to acquire quality and stable employment, which is problematic because of the often reported nexus between unemployment and criminal behavior. Ban the box laws that limit an employer’s use of criminal background checks during the hiring process are being established across the country to help integrate ex-offenders into the labor force. The current study investigates whether Hawaii’s 1998 ban the box law reduced repeat offending in Honolulu County. Logistic regression results show that a criminal defendant prosecuted in Honolulu for a felony crime was 57 percent less likely to have a prior criminal conviction after the implementation of Hawaii’s ban the box law. By mollifying the social stigma attached to a criminal record during the hiring process, Hawaii’s ban the box law proved to be extremely successful in attenuating repeat felony offending.”


Other resources:


Looking for other research on criminal history and background checks? Journalist’s Resource has write-ups on how criminal records can affect access to higher education and how labor market improvements influence criminal recidivism.



Photo by Becky McCray obtained from Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.