Policy Brief

The Limits of Ban-the-Box Legislation

Nationwide, 36 states and over 150 cities and counties have adopted what is widely known as “Ban the Box” (BtB) (NELP 2020). These policies require employers to remove conviction and arrest history questions from job applications and delay background checks until after a conditional offer has been made.  The policy is designed to encourage employers to consider a job candidate’s qualifications first – without the stigma of a criminal record – in the hopes of reducing barriers to employment that justice-involved individuals face.

We imagine two ways that BtB might work. The first is by changing employers’ hiring practices. Existing research on the former indicates the policy does increase callback and hiring rates for people with criminal records (Agan and Starr 2016; Atkinson and Lockwood 2014; Berracasa et al. 2016; Shoag and Veuger 2016), but effects appear highly contingent on the race of the job seeker and on the employment sector. The second way that BtB might reduce barriers to employment is by altering whether and how individuals with criminal records search for work. No research to date, however, has examined whether individuals with criminal records know about BtB, their perception of how efficacious it is, and what impacts the policy’s implementation has had on justice-involved individuals’ job search patterns.

To address the latter shortcoming, we surveyed 351 probationers in the San Francisco Bay Area and conducted in-depth interviews with a subset of 43. We learned that three major barriers continue to limit individuals’ ability to benefit from the policy. First, few of our survey respondents knew about BtB at all, much less that it had been implemented. Second, whether they knew about BtB or not, the majority perceived that they had recently been discriminated against because they had criminal records, with a significant minority to a majority reporting discrimination at each stage of the hiring process. Third, our Black respondents also perceived that employers continue to discriminate against Black applicants, making finding and keeping work extremely difficult.

In this brief, we elaborate on these three points in the hopes that our findings will inform the development not only of fair chance policies aimed at increasing employment opportunities for justice-involved individuals, but also of a broader set of policies on employment and re-entry.