Advocates say Ban-the-Box laws, which limit employers from asking job applicants about their criminal histories, reduce unemployment rates among people with convictions. But according to a recent study, they also increase racial discrimination.
Amanda Agan of Princeton University and Sonja Starr of the University of Michigan sent about 15,000 fake online job applications to employers in New Jersey and New York City before and after those jurisdictions enacted laws to prevent employers from asking questions about criminal history on job applications or during interviews.
Researchers sent each employer two applications, identical except one was supposedly from a white man and the other was supposedly from a black man.
The study supported claims that Ban-the-Box laws make it easier for people with criminal records to get hired, Starr said, but "employers of companies affected by Ban the Box were more likely to hire white applicants than black applicants."
Before the laws passed, a white applicant was 7 percent more likely to receive a callback than a black applicant. After passage, the racial disparity grew to 45 percent.
"Black men without criminal records are going to have a harder time getting their foot in the door," Agan said. She said employers might discriminate against candidates using "race-based assumptions" about criminality.
All of Us or None, an advocacy group, supports Ban-the-Box laws. Spokesman Manuel La Fontaine said researchers looked at the symptoms of racism, not underlying discrimination in hiring practices.
"Ban the Box is not the cause of this racism," he said. "There is a fear of hiring people of color."
Beth Avery, staff attorney for the National Employment Law Project, said the organization is not ready to accept the researchers' conclusions because they conducted their study soon after Ban-the-Box laws went into place, before companies could respond with new hiring practices.
"It's just more proof that more people are acting on biases, and we need to address that underlying bias," she said.
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Advocates say the laws increase employment opportunities for people with criminal records, particularly black men, who make up the majority of those jailed in the United States.
Maryland passed Ban-the-Box legislation for state government employees in 2013. The following year, Baltimore passed legislation restricting employers with 10 or more workers from asking a candidate about criminal records until after a conditional employment offer is made.
The decision made Baltimore one of 25 cities and counties around the country to limit when government contractors or private employers can ask about a job applicant's criminal history, according to the National Employment Law Project.
City Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, who voted against the legislation, said the recent research confirms her fear. She said re-entry programs are a better solution than the "political play" of Ban the Box.
"Retraining, retooling, that's where you get to the source of the problem," Spector said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.