"Ban the Box" good for criminals, bad for diversity, study shows

Amber Athey
Investigative Reporter

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  • A research study by the University of Michigan shows that “Ban the Box” (BTB) legislation actually leads to more racial discrimination, not less.
  • “Ban the Box” legislation prohibits employers from asking about criminal history on job applications, which theoretically gives former convicts more opportunities for initial interviews.
  • In reality, it causes recruiters to make assumptions about an applicant's criminal history based on their race, leading to increased racial disparity.
  • A research study by the University of Michigan shows that “Ban the Box” (BTB) legislation actually leads to more racial discrimination, not less.

    “Ban the Box” legislation prohibits employers from asking about criminal history on job applications, which theoretically gives former convicts more opportunities for initial interviews. The ultimate goal is to decrease racial disparities, as African Americans are more likely to have a criminal history, and thus have a harder time obtaining employment.

    “Employers may make assumptions about criminality based on the applicant’s race.”   

    However, the UMich study found that such legislation actually leads to more discrimination, with African American applicants receiving fewer callbacks because “employers may make assumptions about criminality based on the applicant’s race.”

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    At BTB-affected companies, white applicants had previously received a callback seven percent more often than comparable black applicants. After BTB was implemented, however, the gap increased dramatically, to 45 percent.

    UMich surmises that two factors could be causing the results. First, employers may call back fewer black applicants with no criminal record, “i.e. employers statistically discriminate against black applicants when they cannot see information about criminal history.”

    Second, there may be an increase in callbacks to white applicants with criminal records, because employers “generalize that white applicants do not have records.”

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    Despite the results of the study, BTB policies have been gaining ground in college admissions, The Atlantic reports.

    While campus officials say they use college application questions about criminal history to ensure campus safety, opponents believe it allows them leeway to discriminate against certain groups.

    Questions about criminal history are prevalent on college applications mainly because of their appearance on the Common App, which serves more than 600 universities and was used for about four million applications last year. An estimated 700 universities are going to use the Common App next year.

    Vivian Nixon, the executive director of College & Community Fellowship, says questions about criminal history may discourage convicts from ever even applying.

    “There’s a chilling effect for many students,” she claimed. “They interpret the questions as, ‘I’m not going to get in because I have a felony.’”

    Barmak Nassirian, current director of policy analysis with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, feels criminal history questions may also touch on racial discrimination, as noted in decisions to implement workplace BTB policies.

    “We know that communities of color and students with disabilities are disproportionately affected by run-ins with the law,” he explained. “This mindless adoption of these mechanical so-called ‘safety checks’ does have the predictable downside of disproportionately affecting the students who need it the most.”

    BTB policies on college applications may allow criminal offenders greater opportunities in higher education, however the UMich study suggests it would also lead to higher racial disparities in admissions practices, because university officials may assume that minority applicants are more likely to have criminal history, and thus may be less likely to admit them.

    At a time when colleges are trying to become more diverse, BTB college application policies may accomplish one goal at the expense of another.

    Follow the author of this article on twitter: @amber_athey



    Amber Athey

    Amber Athey

    Investigative Reporter

    Amber Athey is an Investigative Reporter for Campus Reform. She graduated from Georgetown University with a B.A. in Government and Economics, and is currently a member of the 2016-2017 Koch Associate Program. 

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