THE EFFECT OF CRIMINAL BACKGROUND CHECKS ON HIRING EX-OFFENDERS* Judicious criminal justice policy strikes a balance that maximizes both public safety and the rights and liberties of individual citizens. When new technologies or innovations tip the balance in one direction or another, policy makers consider taking measures to recalibrate the scales. As the following three pieces in this issue make clear, we have reached such a critical policy juncture in the area of criminal background checks. As Michael Stoll and Shawn Bushway (2008, this issue) report, more than 40% of the employers in their California sample are now checking the criminal backgrounds of job applicants, which is a percentage that has jumped dramatically in the past decade. In the not-so-distant past, hiring authorities were forced to pay an investigator or traipse to the courthouse themselves to scrutinize an applicant’s criminal history. Although some employers routinely undertook such research, others reserved such efforts for special cases involving particularly sensitive jobs or applicants that had somehow aroused suspicion. Today, employers can routinely run checks that are cheap and easy—if not quick and dirty—unearthing the details of decades-old traffic offenses as well as fresh felony convictions. In such an environment, how are we to balance the legitimate interests of employers against those of potential workers? Although answering such questions is as much a matter of values as evidence, criminological research can provide a sound empirical basis for weighing the relative stakes. On one side of the scale, clear and convincing social science evidence exists that employers discriminate on the basis of criminal history (Pager, 2003). On the other side of the scale, at least a preponderance of social science evidence suggests that employment hastens desistance from crime (Sampson and Laub, 1993; Uggen, 2000). In addition to documenting the rising prevalence of background checks, Stoll and Bushway help specify who checks, how they check, and the extent to which such checks affect hiring. Their results suggest that law, as well as economics, is shaping employer practices; statutory requirements to run * Direct correspondence to Christopher Uggen, Department of Sociology, University of Minnesota, 267 19th Avenue South #909, Minneapolis, MN 55455 (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org).
CRIMINOLOGY & Public Policy Volume 7 Number 3 Copyright 2008 American Society of Criminology
background checks dramatically alter firms’ propensities to hire applicants with criminal records. The Stoll and Bushway (2008) article, and the powerful policy responses it provoked from Richard Freeman (2008, this issue) and Bruce Western (2008, this issue), offer a diversity of perspectives from disparate disciplinary orientations. Each of these scholars thinks seriously and well about crime and employment, although each approaches the issue from markedly different orientations. With doctorates in urban planning and public policy analysis, respectively, Michael Stoll and Shawn Bushway are agnostic as to the motivations of employers or applicants, asking simply whether conducting background checks negatively affects the actual hiring of persons with criminal backgrounds. They find evidence for such negative effects, but their fine-grained analysis suggests that these effects are smaller in magnitude than previously thought and that they are unevenly distributed across social space. Whereas some may worry that too much information cripples the job prospects of those with criminal backgrounds, economist Richard Freeman proposes making more information about the extent and nature of an applicant’s postconviction history available to employers. In the absence of...
References: Anonymous 2005 Ex-felon employment and expungement. Comment #18 attributed to “Dead Soon.” Retrieved July 10, 2008 from chrisuggen.blogspot.com/2005/ 07/ex-felon-employment-and-expungement.html. Freeman, Richard 2008 Incarceration, criminal background checks, and employment in a low(er) crime society. Criminology & Public Policy. This issue. Pager, Devah 2003 The mark of a criminal record. American Journal of Sociology 108:937–975. Raphael, Steven 2006 Should criminal history records be universally available? Criminology & Public Policy 5:512–522. Sampson, Robert J. and John H. Laub 1993 Crime in the Making: Pathways and Turning Points Through Life. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. Stoll, Michael A. and Shawn D. Bushway 2008 The effect of criminal background checks on hiring ex-offenders. Criminology & Public Policy. This issue.
Uggen, Christopher 2000 Work as a turning point in the life course of criminals: A duration model of age, employment, and recidivism. American Sociological Review 67:529–546. Western, Bruce 2008 Criminal background checks and employment among workers with criminal records. Criminology & Public Policy. This issue.
Christopher Uggen is Distinguished McKnight Professor and chair of sociology at the University of Minnesota. He studies crime, law, and deviance, especially how former prisoners manage to put their lives back together. His other interests include crime and drug use, discrimination and inequality, and sexual harassment. With Jeff Manza, he wrote Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy (2006, Oxford). His work also appears in American Sociological Review, American Journal of Sociology, and Criminology as well as in media such as the New York Times, The Economist, and NPR. Professor Uggen now serves as chair of his department and co-editor of Contexts magazine.
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