Employment is a key factor in lowering the risk of those with criminal records from returning to prison. Some have argued that to raise employment rates of ex-offenders, questions about the criminal background status of job applicants should be removed altogether from the hiring process.
What impact do these background checks have on employment opportunities for certain groups - like less-educated black men – who are most likely to have criminal records? Recent research, including my own, has shown that employers who use such background checks are more likely than others to hire minority male applicants. But making criminal records more accessible likely helps and hurts different segments of the African-American community. Those who have prior records are likely harmed, while those without records are helped.
Those emerging from prison with records, sometimes for just one nonviolent drug offense, already face very serious barriers to gaining and retaining employment. These difficulties often lead them to withdraw from the workforce, participate again in crime, and become imprisoned again – all at great public cost.
At a minimum, any efforts to make criminal justice information more available should be accompanied by safeguards that help cushion the blow to ex-offenders seeking jobs. Moreover, other policies might address the often-valid concerns of employers that drive them to review criminal history records in the first place. In light of these considerations, one might advocate for policies that indemnify employers against the risk of hiring ex-offenders, which would improve their incentives to hire such applicants.
Of course, increasing effective skill-building before and after release from prison, promoting nonprofits and other labor-market intermediaries that successfully train ex-offenders, and enforcing anti-discrimination against hiring those with records should be pursued as well.
Given the scale of incarceration in California (and the United States more generally) and the particular racial composition of those most impacted, very careful thought should be given to any policies that affect employment opportunities for so many of our citizens.