At first, Alfred Blumstein, one of the nation's leading criminologists, was certain he was right. Ex-convicts were considerably more likely to commit crimes than people who had never been in trouble with the law, Blumstein, of Carnegie Mellon University, told a federal judge presiding over a 2004 lawsuit in Philadelphia. The suit had been brought by a van driver who was fired from his job ferrying handicapped people on grounds that he had been convicted of second-degree murder 40 years earlier, when he was 15 years old.
In a report to the judge, Blumstein said it was “entirely prudent and reasonable” for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) to fire the long-ago-convicted Douglas El, because of its duty “to do whatever it can to protect the vulnerable population that uses its paratransit services.” Drivers, he said, must “be free of any such [violent] convictions.”
The judge agreed, but in the years following his testimony, Blumstein immersed himself in data on prisoner re-entry into society and came to a more nuanced conclusion: that a criminal past doesn't necessarily predict future conduct.
Changing his views, criminologist Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University concluded that a criminal past doesn't necessarily predict future conduct. (www.search.org)
That view has come to be repeatedly cited by advocates for job-seekers with criminal records. And new studies by sociologists, economists and criminologists have lent credence to it.
At an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) meeting last year, Amy Solomon, a senior adviser on prisoner re-entry to the Justice Department, cited Blumstein's study of people with arrest records. “After staying clean for some period of time,” she said, “these individuals are no more likely than anyone else to have another arrest in the future. I believe this research has important and very practical implications.”
In his first report of an ongoing study of the subsequent lives of New Yorkers first arrested in 1980, Blumstein and a collaborator cited previous evidence that recidivism — or reoffending — tends to occur within the first few years of an initial arrest. But for those who don't get back into trouble, the study found, their likelihood of recidivism eventually declines to that of the general population.
To be sure, Blumstein and his collaborator, Kiminori Nakamura, a criminology professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, noted that people arrested for violent crimes take longer to present an average risk, as do those who are arrested at young ages. “Employers … serving vulnerable populations like children and the elderly would be particularly sensitive to a prior record involving violence,” they wrote.
Meanwhile, other researchers have been studying how race affects employer perceptions of job applicants. Devah Pager, a Princeton University sociology professor who studies the effect of criminal records on employment, has found evidence that many employers screen out African-American job applicants at a higher rate than white applicants, regardless of whether they have a criminal record.
In 2001, while at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., Pager set up an experiment in which black and white subjects applied for job openings in Milwaukee. Some subjects disclosed fictitious criminal records invented for the experiment.
Of Pager's white subjects, 34 percent without criminal records received callbacks from prospective employers. For those with records, the callback rate was 17 percent. For black subjects, 14 percent without records were called back — compared with a mere 5 percent for those with records.
“This is a startling result,” Pager told the EEOC in 2008, “and I think it points to some of the ways in which high incarceration rates among African-Americans may have strengthened the association between race and crime in the minds of many Americans and many employers. So in some ways all black men pay a penalty for their membership in a group with such high levels of incarceration.”
The same point was made, in a different way, in a study by three academics led by Harry J. Holzer, co-founder of the Georgetown University Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy in Washington. Holzer and his colleagues — Steven Raphael of the University of California, Berkeley, and Michael A. Stoll of the University of California, Los Angeles — studied the effects of background screening on African-American job applicants. They concluded that employers who screen job applicants' backgrounds are more likely to hire African-Americans than those who don't screen prospective employees. They theorized that screening helps educate employers and cancel out negative stereotypes they may harbor.
“Employers who perform criminal background checks are more likely to hire black applicants than employers who do not,” Holzer and his colleagues concluded. The reason seemed to be, they wrote, “that employers with a particularly strong aversion to ex-offenders may be more likely to overestimate the relationship between criminality and race and hire too few African-Americans as a result.”
The study has been cited by background-screening companies as evidence of their value.
Frederick G. Giles, senior vice president of the Carco Group, a screening firm in Holtsville, N.Y., says the moral of the study is that “when you are trying to end discrimination, you use those tools that have proven effective in ending discrimination. By vilifying background screening, you're creating a climate in which there's a higher propensity for discrimination.”
But, says Sharon Dietrich, managing attorney for public benefits and employment at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, “If employers are presuming that black men commit crime, that is a matter of racial discrimination and should be dealt with as a matter of racial discrimination — not by background checking.”
— Peter Katel