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October 04, 2004

Pager on Criminal Stigma for Employment

I wrote a paper called "Stigma and Self-Fulfilling Expectations of Criminality" and am on the lookout for examples such as this one from the WSJ (free link): " As Background Checks Proliferate, Ex-Cons Face a Lock on Jobs"....

...While Peter Demain was serving a six-year sentence for possession of 21 pounds of marijuana, he did such a good job working in the prison kitchen that he quickly rose to head baker. After his release, the Durango, Colo., resident filled out 25 job applications at bagel shops, coffee houses, grocery stores and bakeries. All turned him down. Some even asked him to leave the premises immediately after learning of his conviction.

It's never been easy for someone with a criminal history to find work, but it is becoming increasingly difficult. More businesses are using criminal-background checks to guard against negligent-hiring lawsuits, theft of company assets and even terrorism. About 80% of big companies in the U.S. now do such checks, up from 56% in 1996, according to a January survey of personnel executives.

Two weeks ago, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the nation's largest corporate employer with more than 1.2 million workers, said it would conduct criminal-background checks on all applicants in its U.S. stores, beginning in September. Wal-Mart's former policy was to order background checks only for certain personnel, including loss-prevention and pharmacy employees.


"Forty-six million people in this country have been convicted of something sometime in their lives and our economy would collapse if none of them could get jobs," says Lewis Maltby, president of the National WorkRights Institute,a nonprofit human-rights organization founded by former staff of the American Civil Liberties Union. That figure includes everybody in the FBI criminal records database, which includes people convicted of a relatively minor misdemeanor.


Blacks with criminal records also pay a bigger penalty in the job market. According to a study of applicants for low-level jobs conducted by Devah Pager, a Northwestern University sociologist, having a prison record cut by two thirds a black man's chances of getting called back by an employer, while it cut a white man's chances by half.

The explosion in background checks is occurring in part because technological advances have made them faster and cheaper. Businesses commonly pay $25 to $100 per search, and the price is dropping. Several months ago, SecurTest, a Florida- based applicant-screening company, began offering background checks using its own proprietary system that culls public criminal records. The service, which costs about $10 per applicant, focuses mainly on felony-type convictions.

Bottom line: It's now affordable for businesses to do checks for the very sorts of entry-level jobs in which rehabilitated criminals are encouraged to seek employment.

Wal-Mart came under fire last month for two separate incidents in South Carolina in which its employees were accused of sexually assaulting young female shoppers. Both of the accused employees had prior criminal convictions for sexually related offenses. Several weeks after the episodes at Wal-Mart came to light in news accounts, two members of South Carolina's legislature proposed a bill requiring all retailers that sell toys or children's clothing to conduct background checks on potential employees. A spokesman for Wal-Mart says the Bentonville, Ark., company was unaware of the criminal records of the two employees in question.


Wal-Mart says it will use background checks on a case-by-case basis, and that people with a criminal record could still be offered a job. It will all depend on the nature of the crime, how long ago it occurred, and the type of job being filled, the company says.


Such scrutiny has tempted some applicants to lie. When Jeffrey Calwise first got out of prison for unarmed robbery, he disclosed his criminal history on work applications. But after numerous rejections, he decided to fib. The Detroit resident got a factory job making $6.50 an hour, but was later fired after the company performed a background check and discovered his criminal record.

Then, Mr. Calwise decided to begin writing "will discuss at interview" on applications that asked about whether he'd been convicted of a crime. That didn't work, either: He got some interviews, but his explanation didn't get him any jobs.


The U.S. Fair Credit Reporting Act requires employers to give job-seekers a copy of their background report if they are rejected due to a criminal offense. The law also permits applicants to challenge the reports. But companies can always cite different reasons for rejecting someone. Another loophole: Employers aren't required to give a person a copy of the report if they conduct the search themselves, such as by mining publicly available court records.

Typically, this article is sympathetic to the ex-cons and doesn't ask why the employer prefers to hire someone else instead of the selected ex-cons here. If there are 46 million people with criminal records, most of them have gotten jobs anyway, and certain employers in the past have been quite willing to hire ex-cons. It is all a matter of supply and demand. When an employer has a choice between an ex-con, or someone identical except for that who wants 20% higher pay, the employer will have to think hard.

The Devah Pager study caught my eye. It finds that blacks lose more by having a criminal record than whites, the opposite of what I suggest in my paper (as a theoretical prediction). That is interesting, because if blacks have less future-wage incentive not to be criminal, that makes high black criminality rates all the harder to explain. It's possible, though. In my theory, that finding would be a hopeful sign: it says that instead of thinking most blacks are criminal and some just don't get caught, employers do reward black men with clean records. This, too, is a point missed by the public: it might be that an employer who doesn't have access to criminal records would be reluctant to hire *any* black youths, but with the comfort of finding no criminal record,he is willing to hire one. If this is true, it would be bad to forbid employers to look at criminal records-- they would respond by not hiring at all rather than by hiring blind.

Professor Pager's article, "The mark of a criminal record." American Journal of Sociology 108(5): 937-975 (2003), looks pretty good. She did an experiment with matched job applicants, a good methodology.

Posted by erasmuse at October 4, 2004 09:56 AM

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