Those convicted of a crime can pay a price long after they have served their time. They may lose eligibility for federal benefits, their right to vote, and even the chance of a job when potential employers inquire into their criminal background. (One study found that such disclosures can lower the chance of being hired by more than 50 percent.)
In response, the “Ban the Box” (also known as “Fair Chance Hiring”) movement has succeeded in passing policies in more than 22 states and 100 cities and counties that eliminate questions about criminal background from a job application. However, despite the widespread adoption of these policies, a big question has remained unanswered: How do people with convictions do once they are hired?
Despite the severe, detrimental effects of background checks for those denied employment, these individuals’ performance as employees has received little study. Last September, the city and county of San Francisco invited a team of Stanford University public policy students to investigate this question, and we are excited to say that we have been able to shed some light.
To conduct the study, we analyzed data for roughly 5,000 of San Francisco’s employees hired in the past year and a half. We found that the approximately 800 with a conviction performed identically to those without convictions.
Specifically, in looking at the proportion who were terminated for unsuccessful job performance (e.g., failure to appear for work, or a disciplinary action), the proportions were equal for employees with and without records. In addition, when looking at the city’s policy for evaluating a group of candidates whose specific convictions triggered additional inquiry — a group of about 170 — we found that the policy opened pathways to employment regardless of the type of crime the candidate had committed.
This is good news for the more than 70 million Americans with a criminal record — a number that includes those arrested as well as those convicted — and, indeed, all Americans. Countless studies have shown that stable work is one of the most important factors in reducing the likelihood someone commits a new crime. Here in San Francisco, assuming the city is representative of the nation, that means more than 180,000 residents have a record of some kind. Fortunately for them, the city is considered a model of “Fair Chance Hiring” — a policy that goes beyond “banning the box” to specify what types of convictions employers should consider and how they should use that information. To see what the process for getting a job with the city would look like for one person, let’s imagine a job candidate we’ll call T.
T has a felony conviction for vehicle theft dating from 2012, and now he’s seeking employment as a truck driver in the Department of Public Works. On his initial application, he will not have to disclose his criminal record. It is only when he becomes a finalist for the position that a staff member within San Francisco’s Department of Human Resources will begin the background check. If his conviction is deemed irrelevant to the job, then the process will end there, and his criminal record will not affect his chances of being hired in any way.
However, in this case, because his specific conviction (vehicle theft) is relevant to his job as a truck driver, T will be invited to submit evidence of rehabilitation, such as proof of completing probation, or a letter of recommendation from an employer. (As a side note, vehicle crimes were the most common among applicants who triggered additional inquiry, followed by violence, property, drugs, fraud, weapon, sex and other.) If the committee evaluating this evidence decides that T is rehabilitated, he’ll be offered the job. No one in the Department of Public Works will ever know about his conviction. In our data set, of 171 candidates, 157 were cleared for hire in this matter. We found that, within the limited data available, this subset of employees also performed identically to their counterparts without a conviction.
We believe this research comes at an important moment. “Fair Chance” and “Ban the Box” policies are proliferating across the nation, providing welcome relief for the nearly 1 in 3 American adults with a criminal background. This may be a sign of a new political reality that, after decades of increasingly punitive practices, there is a growing consensus we should be opening doors for people with criminal records, rather than closing them.
Policies like those in San Francisco are lowering barriers, helping make sure that, when it comes to employment, more people are getting a fair chance.
Charlie Mintz and Jacob Lopez, along with Afia Bonner and Sarah Flamm, are public policy students at Stanford University.