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'Ban the box' hiring policies advance nationwide despite critical studies

Broward County commissioners in Florida are poised to approve an ordinance banning questions about past criminal activity on applications for county jobs, though some new research concludes that such “ban the box” laws lower employment among black and Hispanic men who have no criminal history.

The commissioners gave the measure their support last week in an initial 8-0 vote. Broward Mayor Marty Kiar told AMI Newswire that a final vote on the ordinance is scheduled for June 14.

“The Obama administration did this for federal employees,” Kiar said Thursday. “I’ve been told that it’s been somewhat of a success.”

According to a summary of the Broward ordinance, the county could no longer inquire about job applicants’ criminal records on applications, but background checks can still be done once finalists are identified for positions. (The 'box' is typically a simple box on the application where a job-seeker checks "yes" or "no" as to whether he has a criminal history.) The idea is that a candidate who makes a strong impression during job interviews could cause a hiring manager to overlook a past mistake that led to a criminal conviction, Kiar said.

“The goal is to give everybody an opportunity to compete for a job,” he said.

The ordinance, however, does contain exceptions. For example, it would not apply when the county wants to hire someone for certain sensitive positions, such as those who come into contact with children and the developmentally disabled, as well as managers or chiefs of departments, divisions or offices.

The National Employment Law Project, a New York-based group that advocates on employment issues, reported in April that more than 100 cities and counties have passed “ban the box” ordinances. A total of 23 states have also adopted similar measures for public employees, while eight states, including Illinois, Massachusetts and New Jersey, went a step further by banning private employers from listing questions about criminal histories on job applications.

A 'ban the box' bill in Louisiana just passed the legislature and has been sent to the governor's desk.

More than half of the Americans – 185 million people – now live in jurisdictions with “ban the box” laws, the law project estimates.

At least one new report, however, casts doubt on whether such ordinances are having their intended effect: to help ex-offenders find decent jobs after paying their dues so they can enjoy a future free of crime. An article published this week by Brookings Institute visiting fellow Jennifer Doleac found that the ordinances have serious unintended consequences.

Doleac detailed research by herself and others that compared hiring tendencies before and after the passage of “ban the box” ordinances. One study concluded that after the ordinances went into effect, callbacks to black applicants dropped significantly when compared to white applicants.

The economic theory, Doleac explained, is that when employers are deprived of the information on criminal convictions, they become more likely to avoid hiring minority applicants because those applicants are statistically more likely to have been convicted of a crime.

In explaining some of the research she took part in, Doleac stated, “We find that black and Hispanic men without college degrees are significantly less likely to be employed after ‘ban the box’ than before.”

Although she agrees with the good intentions of the ordinances and the need to help ex-offenders gain employment, Doleac concluded, “Overall, the unintended consequences of ‘ban the box’ are large and run counter to one of its goals: reducing racial disparities in employment.”

Supporters of the measures say the simple fact that so many jurisdictions have opted to implement them has increased openness to ex-offenders. In addition, the city of Minneapolis reported that after its law was enacted, more than 50 percent of job applicants who have criminal records are being hired.

A report from Broward’s Finance and Administrative Services Department found that the ordinance being considered by commissioners could result in delays in hiring since finalists could be disqualified at the end of the process. It may also increase costs due to the county having to pay for physicals of disqualified candidates and has the potential to create false hopes for applicants found to be disqualified after investing time and effort, the report stated.

Kiar downplayed those concerns, saying that the additional costs would be nominal and that giving all people the opportunity to compete for jobs and provide for their families was well worth the price.

“At any time you make any type of change, it could cost a few more dollars at the end of the day to get it moving correctly,” he said.

The county has about 6,000 employees – not including Sheriff’s Department personnel. The Finance and Administrative Services Department report states that half of the 6,000 positions cannot be filled by people convicted of certain offenses, based on current laws, regulations or business practices.