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Neela Rajendra

Interview with Jennifer Doleac

By | Thought Leaders
In the context of the growing racial equity movement and companies and employers recommitting themselves to the Black Lives Matter movement, SODI is launching an online series of research insights.  In this first edition, SODI Executive Director Neela Rajendra interviewed Professor Jennifer Doleac of Texas A&M University on her research on the popular policy of “ban the box”, which discourages employers from asking about criminal records.  Her research shows that hiding criminal histories on job applications can actually increase discrimination against black and hispanic applicants, particularly men, even if those applicants were not ex-offenders.
Specific recommendations Professor Doleac makes to corporate leaders include: 
  • First understand why your organization has been asking about criminal histories; if there isn’t a solid reason for asking, then removing that question may be a good idea.
  • If the company has a good reason for asking (such as legal liability), then offering additional programming and training can help mitigate those liabilities and encourage the hiring of qualified candidates with criminal records.
Watch the live interview or read the transcript below to learn more about the findings on ban the box policies and Doleac’s recommendations to companies who are facing similar policies.

Transcript

NEELA RAJENDRA

Okay, thank you so much for joining us for this first interview / coffee chat with researcher Jen[nifer] Doleac. Jen, if you could start with just telling us a little bit about yourself, where you work, what your research focuses [on], and, in particular, I really want to know how an economist started studying criminal justice.

JENNIFER DOLEAC 

Sure, yeah. So I am an Economics Professor at Texas A&M University. I also direct the Justice tech lab there and I host a podcast called Probable Causation. And the podcast is basically focused on what I study, which is law, economics and crime. So my research focuses are crime and criminal justice policy, as well as discrimination. And those tend to overlap quite a bit, as you might imagine.

So how an economist comes to study crime, I think, you know, there are a few ways in which crime is of interest to economists. One is that it’s a question of how to allocate scarce resources as in many in many topics that we economists like to study. We have, you know, people, police officers that we want to allocate, and we want to figure out what the best way to do that is, or the best way to spend public safety dollars.

Economists are also really interested in incentives and how incentives change behavior. And so, when we’re thinking about how to change criminal behavior, or police officer behavior or judges’ behavior, anyone’s behavior, incentives can often play a really big role. And that’s something people like me have a lot to say about. So those are the types of things that drew me to this topic.

NEELA RAJENDRA

Awesome, thanks. So the focus of our conversation today is really specifically on your paper about Banning the Box. So if you could just really quickly explain both the purpose of the study as well as the reasoning – the economics reasoning – behind focusing on this particular topic.

JENNIFER DOLEAC 

Sure, yeah. So ban the box is a policy that aims to help people with criminal records get jobs and, in the long run, hopefully stop the incarceration cycle that we have in the United States. And the way the policy works is that there’s typically or has historically been a question on job applications that asks you to check a box if you have a criminal record and then asked you a little bit about that record if you checked the box. And, because we know that employers discriminate against people with criminal records, a lot of people looked at that and said, “Well, maybe we could just ban that box, right?” Maybe we can just take the question off of criminal or off of job applications, and give people with a record a chance to get their foot in the door and build rapport with the employer. And so that ultimately, when the employer does the background check at the end of the process, maybe they don’t care anymore that they have a record and will hire them for the job. And so that was the goal of the policy and how the policy worked. 

Someone like me and economists looked at that and said, “You know, that could totally backfire.” If employers don’t want to hire someone with a criminal record, and they’re not allowed to ask upfront anymore, they might just try to guess who has a record and then discriminate against anyone they think might have a record. And because of the big racial disparities, and who has a record in the United States, they might in fact discriminate against black men more than they already do. And so that was the concern going into this paper that I wrote with Ben Hansen, who’s [at] the University of Oregon. And so we’re really interested in seeing whether that theory actually played out in practice, like, do we actually see what’s the net impact on employment for these groups that could be affected by the policy.

NEELA RAJENDRA

And what is it?

JENNIFER DOLEAC 

So on net, we see a big decline in employment for young black men without a college degree so  the the group that is the most likely to be helped by ban the box if it helps, but hurt by ban the box if it just leads to more discrimination against  black men. Employers are using race now as a proxy for having a criminal record. So employment overall dropped by 5% for this group after ban the box was implemented, which is a lot. I mean, I think we’re, you know, we’re currently living through a moment where employment rates are dropping by double digits, but that is very unusual. And so a 5% drop in employment, it’s a really big drop, especially for a group that struggles with the labor market already for a variety of reasons.

NEELA RAJENDRA

Yeah. And so my understanding from your paper is that in the absence of additional information, employers are making sort of guesses about the potential employees, is that correct?

JENNIFER DOLEAC 

Yeah, that’s basically the story we have in mind. So either some reason that employers are worried about hiring someone with a criminal record. And and if we just try to get around that – say, by just hiding that information – it t turns out, we can’t just like trick employers into hiring people they don’t want to hire, they’re going to try their incentive… they have some incentive not to hire [someone] with a criminal record, then that incentive is still going to be at work here. And so, we think about, you know, policy alternatives, which is something I think a lot about, you know, certainly increasing employment for this group is really important for a variety of reasons. And so, as an economist who cares about policy, I like to also put alternatives on the table when I say, “This policy doesn’t seem to be working,” that we can try these other things. I think the key is really going to be figuring out what it is that employers are worried about and directly addressing those concerns.

NEELA RAJENDRA

Right.

JENNIFER DOLEAC 

So a lot of employers talk about worrying about legal liability. They hire someone with a criminal record and they commit another crime on the job. Even if you know beforehand that the record seemed really minor and it wasn’t a concern, anything, in retrospect, can look like a red flag and can potentially put them out of business. And so, if there’s some sort of legal liability risk like that or even just like risk of bad press, if something like that happens, you could imagine coming up with a system that like shifts the risk from the employer to the courts, through certifications or something like that. And a variety of other things like that where we can think about, you know, specific things that employers might be worried about and figuring out specific policies that directly address those concerns. Rather than just trying to hide the information for employers and assuming that they’re there. They’re doing this wrong somehow.

NEELA RAJENDRA

Yeah. And what can employers do instead? I mean, what are so if… you’re speaking to employers who are facing this question, what’s the advice that you have for them?

JENNIFER DOLEAC 

Yeah, well, so I mean, I do think that one thing that one really positive thing that’s come out of the ban the box movement is it’s pushed a lot of employers to ask themselves why it is that they have this question on their job applications, right? So it might be that a lot of us and employers in particular have just, you know, had ideas in mind about what someone with a criminal record is like and just never really questioned whether we should be giving them a chance in a variety of places in life.

And it might be and I think a lot of employers are coming to the conclusion that actually it’s totally fine and at least certain jobs, within their systems, to not ask that question and then maybe it’s not relevant anymore. And they’re perfectly fine giving someone with a, you know, maybe certain types of records a chance on the job. And so, I think that’s the first thing I say to employers is to just really like ask themselves why, why it is they’re asking the question in the first place. And if they don’t have a good answer, then maybe that’s a signal they shouldn’t be asking. 

But I think a lot of times there is something that, you know, that that comes to mind, whether it’s the legal liability risk, whether it’s like workplace safety, whether it’s, you know, we know that just correlationally we know that people who go through the criminal justice system have higher rates of substance abuse and untreated mental illness. And I think of those as like failings on the society’s part, like we should be investing in programs to help those groups. But if those are the types of things employers are worried about, then either we’re going to have to invest, again, on the society level, have more community programs, or there are actually a lot of employers that are trying new programs where they they offer a bunch of kind of wraparound services to new employees that are coming in that are more on the margins of the labor force, whether it’s with a criminal record or, or just other hard-to-employ groups who just have a lot of needs. Maybe they don’t have reliable transportation, maybe they have kids at home that need to be watched and that’s why they they can’t get to work on time every day. And so employers can think about – if they are really struggling to find people to fill jobs and they want to give these groups a shot – those are other options.

But I think, you know, employers can easily see how providing all those services could… that’s expensive, right? And so which is why part of the reason I’m saying this is probably going to be an issue society needs to be addressing more than expecting employers and workplaces to do it all themselves.

NEELA RAJENDRA

Yeah. That being said, in the context of the growing racial equity movement and companies and employers recommitting themselves to the Black Lives Matter movement – is this part of kind of the new normal that needs to happen? Do companies, do you think that companies need to be taking on this kind of investment if they’re really committed to this work? Or is it different? Should they be putting foundation resources that they have, you know, to the societal solutions? What do you think is the best approach?

JENNIFER DOLEAC 

Yeah, it’s a great question. I mean, part of this is kind of philosophically with the role of a private sector company, right. I mean, I think that there’s certainly plenty of room for a workplace that just is committed to this issue and committed to giving people with a record a chance in a job. You know, there are plenty people out there looking for jobs and, if they can offer a job, even if that person might not be the most productive in that role or might need additional supports along the way. I mean that would be a part part employment, part public service I think for those for those workplaces to provide that opportunity. And that would be great. 

I think, again, as sort of a researcher who thinks about policy, I think expecting all workplaces to step up and do that is a little bit unreasonable. Not all workplaces are going to be willing to make that investment. But those that are, I mean whether it’s someone with a criminal record or just any there are lots of groups that are on the margins of the labor force and struggled to get in, and so providing opportunities to, to folks to just kind of have some practice working in that kind of setting and a chance to move up the ladder is a really great service.

NEELA RAJENDRA

Awesome. And what is the state of the ban the box movement now? So, when you started this work, I think it was you started, tell me if I’m wrong, but I think you started looking at this back in 2014. What’s, what’s the state of it now? Are employers still supporting ban the box policies? Or has the recent has your research been changing minds about the way that we should be approaching this issue?

JENNIFER DOLEAC 

So, um, so I think I’ve been gratified to see the research – not just my own, but there’s a lot of research in this space now – show that’s very consistent with the findings of my paper with Ben. I think it’s changed a lot of minds, but they’re still there still is a ban the box lobby out there, I would say, that is actively pushing for these policies and getting these policies passed.

You know, I think there’s also a difference between, you know, government bans on  this question, which is what I think of as ban the box policies. There’s a difference between that and individual employers choosing not to ask the question anymore. I think that is also often referred to as banning the box, but it’s fundamentally different in that it’s a choice. You’re just removing the box right? You’re not being banned from putting the box on your on your job application. And so, I think you know what I was saying earlier about employers reflecting on why it is they’re asking this question and maybe choosing not to ask it anymore.

JENNIFER DOLEAC 

So if employers are choosing not to ask the question about whether you have a criminal record anymore, I don’t think of that as Banning the Box necessarily, I think of that as removing the box because they’re not being banned, they’re not being prevented by some outside government or anyone else from asking the question. They are deciding they don’t care about it anymore. And if someone doesn’t care about whether a job applicant has no criminal record, then they’re not going to try to guess whether they have a record. And so then, in that scenario, we wouldn’t expect the unintended consequences where you use race as a proxy for having a criminal record, for instance, that we saw with the government ban. And so you could still have these problems in the private sector or with internal bans, if say, like, the CEO, decides to remove the box, but then the hiring managers on the ground aren’t on board with that, and they still care and they still don’t want to manage someone with a criminal record, then they could be the ones that are trying to guess. 

So I think, you know, the way to think about this is, is anybody trying to guess when they don’t have this information? And if the answer is yes, then there’s more work to be done. It’s not going to be as easy as just removing removing the question. But, but I do think it’s important to differentiate between these policies that prevent people from asking about information they care about, and an individual’s decision that they actually don’t care about that information anymore.

NEELA RAJENDRA

Yeah, um, last question for you. So um actually I have two more questions, but we’ll, we’ll see if we have time. Um, so just one more clarifying question on this topic. So for those individuals or companies or divisions within a company who do have reason to care about whether or not the person that they’re potentially hiring has a criminal record, what are two alternatives that they can do to still support those that do you have criminal records in those positions? Or is there is there anything that they can do?

JENNIFER DOLEAC 

So if they want to, if they still want to hire someone with a record, and I think that the question is, again, you know, what is it that they’re worried about? If it’s something about legal liability, then that becomes trickier because that’s sort of that’s essentially an expected cost that comes with hiring that person that might be much larger than if they were to hire someone else. And so, I’m not sure there’s a really easy way to address that from inside a firm. If the concerns are about well, we don’t know if the person’s going to get to work on time, we don’t know if they’re going to be reliable, we don’t know if they’re gonna have the interpersonal skills they need on this job, then providing more training could be useful if the firm really wants to invest in helping, you know, building a pipeline of this group in their in their workplace. 

I think also thinking through how other employees will react to having people with criminal records on the workforce. I think that’s something that often we assume that the discrimination is coming from the employer and the person who’s doing the hiring, but what they might be worrying about is discrimination from other employees or even from customers. And so, thinking through, again, like what it is that these employers are really worried about and  thinking of ways that they can specifically address those concerns is going to be key, whether that’s within a firm or kind of society and policy level.

NEELA RAJENDRA

Got it, thanks. And then last question for you is a broader question, which is just so your research in criminal justice is quite extensive. And I think just, you know, there are a lot of us who are recommitting ourselves to creating a society that’s more racially equitable and racially just. What are some recommendations that you have for just individuals who want to support criminal justice reform. And then, if there’s time, what are some structural recommendations that you have to make the criminal justice system more racially equitable?

JENNIFER DOLEAC 

Yes, that’s a great question. It’s been wonderful as a researcher to see this interest and momentum towards change. And it’s actually one of the reasons I love working on this topic is that there’s such  bipartisan support for criminal justice reform. So I think that you know, criminal justice policy is really broad, it goes everywhere from policing to corrections and incarceration, to probation and reentry. And then we can also talk about different types of investments we might make that keep people out of the criminal justice system to begin with and never committing crime. 

So as a researcher, I spend a lot of time thinking about prisoner reentry, so how to help people as they’re coming out of jail or prison reintegrate into society. It is much easier to prevent someone from ever getting involved in the criminal justice system than it is to help them avoid reoffending once they are already have cycled through the system once. And so, you know, investing in things like education in the community, health care, mental health care. So cognitive behavioral therapy is one of those programs that’s shown to be really effective with different groups and high risk groups in particular. Summer jobs for teens reduces violent crime rates. So just a variety of things that kind of helped the pipeline and help people avoid getting into trouble to begin with.

NEELA RAJENDRA

Yeah.

JENNIFER DOLEAC 

And, and all of these things are going to disproportionately benefit Black and Hispanic residents because those are the groups that are disproportionately touched by the criminal justice system. And so, I think if, for better or worse, we don’t have to worry as much about solutions to these problems having racially disparate benefits, because they could just because the system has such large racial disparities in it to begin with. Um, let’s see, what else were you asking about?

NEELA RAJENDRA

I was asking about what individuals can do to support criminal justice reform?

JENNIFER DOLEAC 

Yeah. So one thing that I talk a lot about is just how hard a lot of these questions are going to be to answer. You know, I think a lot of people come to this and it seems… the solution seem obvious to them. And, I think one of you know, sometimes there are obvious solutions and there are just people in power in certain places that have prevented the solutions from being implemented. But even in those cases, I think it should give us pause that some people are reluctant to make those reforms because it usually means there are trade offs that might not be immediately evident.

But I think in general what I think I certainly push for and then I think would be really helpful for voters and citizens and community members to be pushing for is just more experimentation. And this is true of anything where we want to see a reduction in racial disparities or gender disparities or any any sorts of disparities.  

A lot of the policies that are really well meaning and that seem on their face like they should have big benefits, in practice either don’t work or actively backfire.

NEELA RAJENDRA

Yeah.

JENNIFER DOLEAC 

And I think ban the box is a great example of that. And so, you know, it just there are just so many examples like this. And so, as someone who cares about reducing these disparities, I think it’s just really key that we implement stuff, but that we then like try a whole bunch of things we should all be brainstorming right now and just trying stuff. But we should also be very humble about the very high likelihood that the stuff that we try will fail.

NEELA RAJENDRA

Yeah.

JENNIFER DOLEAC 

And we should be ready to fail fast rather than not fail at all. And I really so that we can iterate on those programs and try something else, and I really think that’s going to be the fastest way to solving these problems.

NEELA RAJENDRA

Yeah. And maybe work with researchers like you to do randomized controlled trials.

JENNIFER DOLEAC 

Yes, either randomized or there are also other ways to approach research that doesn’t require randomizing, that word tends to turn some people off sometimes.

NEELA RAJENDRA

Yeah.

JENNIFER DOLEAC 

Yes, working together, academics and policymakers and business people and all kinds of community members, there are a lot of opportunities to work together to solve these problems. And I love doing that and I know a lot of other people do too, so please get in touch if people are interested.

NEELA RAJENDRA

Awesome. Thank you so much, Jen . This was really fun and thank you for your time and insights. So thanks so much!

JENNIFER DOLEAC 

Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Interested in learning more about racial equity in the workplace? Join the Science of Diversity & Inclusion Initiative (SODI) in partnership with the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership (EGAL) for our next virtual convening

Contact Kyra McAndrews for more information.

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