Nationwide, 37 states and over 150 localities have adopted “ban the box” (BTB) laws, which prevent employers from asking prospective employees about their criminal histories at initial job screenings. Advocates argue that these laws will reduce the stigma associated with past convictions and arrests, increasing employment opportunities for ex-offenders and subsequently reducing incentives for criminal activity. However, some recent studies suggest that this might not be the case, with some suggesting that BTB laws increased job discrimination against some minorities while others have found increases in crime.
One recent study published in the Journal of Law and Economics comprehensively examined the effect of state and local BTB laws on criminal incidents involving racial and ethnic minorities. According to the study, BTB laws were associated with a 16% increase in property crimes involving working-age Hispanic men. A common theory is that BTB laws increase job discrimination against some minorities, and diminished employment opportunities increase crime. This especially makes sense in the context of property crime, which tends to be economically motivated. Property crimes did not increase among Blacks, however, suggesting that unintended consequences of BTB laws disproportionately affected only certain minorities.
This study used multiple data sources to estimate the relationship between BTB laws and crime. The primary source was agency-month crime data from the National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS) for the years 2004 through 2014. The authors also used data from the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey (ACS) to examine other mechanisms (e.g., labor market outcomes, demographics) that might mediate the relationship between BTB and crime.
Descriptive statistics showed that arrest rates were consistently higher among Black males, followed by Hispanic males, and then non-Hispanic white males. Additionally, crime tended to peak during the age range of 19-26 and was usually committed by males.
The authors used Poisson regression models to examine differences in crime rates between BTB areas and non-BTB areas at the state- and agency-level. In other words, state-level crime data was used to compare BTB states with non-BTB states, and agency-level crime data was used to compare BTB localities with non-BTB localities. Poisson models also allowed researchers to examine whether the relationship between BTB and crime was mediated by other factors, such as time-fixed effects, demographics, or labor market outcomes. Several models were fitted with different groupings of predictors, and the strongest predictors were selected for final model specifications.
Results from the regression analysis showed that BTB laws were associated with a 16% increase in aggregate property crime offenses for Hispanic males age 25 and older. This was driven by burglaries (+19%) and larcenies (+14%). This effect was not seen for Hispanic males who were younger than age 25, though. But when looking at motor vehicle theft exclusively, this finding flipped: motor vehicle theft rates remained unchanged for the 25+ group but increased 35% for the <25 group.
There were no changes in property crime offenses for White or Black males. The fact that there was no change in offenses for Black males was perplexing to the authors. Considering that Blacks and Hispanics are both minorities who (in theory) experience similar levels of discrimination, it was expected that BTB laws would impact these groups similarly.
There was little evidence that BTB laws impacted violent crime. There was a small increase in violent crime for Blacks age 35 and older, but this finding was not statistically significant.
Labor Market Outcomes
The authors used ACS data to assess relationships between BTB laws and labor market outcomes. They did find that BTB laws were associated with a small but significant reduction (-~3%) in employment among minority males, including both Hispanics and Blacks. This posed a question for the authors: if BTB laws impact Blacks and Hispanics similarly in terms of employment, then why do the laws have differential impacts in terms of crime?
Differential impacts between Blacks and Hispanics might be related to socioeconomic factors (e.g., public assistance, education). For example, the current study found that less-educated Blacks were slightly more likely to participate in public assistance programs than their Hispanic counterparts, which may have changed incentives to commit property crime. This finding coincides with the idea that barriers to public assistance, such as language barriers and fears related to immigration, may exacerbate negative economic consequences of BTB laws.
Overall, the findings were consistent with those reported in a 2020 working paper, which also found that BTB laws increased recidivism among demographic groups that were suffering from employment discrimination. In that study though, results were concentrated on Blacks and not Hispanics.
One limitation of the NIBRS data is that it has a low coverage rate, and participation varies based on region. In other words, the sample of participating agencies is disparate and not nationally representative. The coverage rate was even lower in the years 2004-2014, the years that data were collected. Further, just as the sample is not nationally representative, it also might not be representative of all BTB areas. Unfortunately, this is in part due to the haphazard manner of national-level crime data in this country. However, NIBRS coverage rates have increased over time, and hopefully it won’t take long before the data is nationally representative.
Advocates for BTB laws contend that these laws would reduce employment discrimination, improve labor market outcomes, and decrease crime. However, recent studies have uncovered an important finding — for certain minority groups, the laws may actually have the opposite effect. This speaks to a common issue in criminal justice: policy changes do not always achieve the intended result. In other words, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
This is why evaluation and research are so key in formulating effective policy. First, policymakers should be considering existing research when enacting new policies. Second, they should be advocating for evaluations of new policies to advance our knowledge further. Surely, this would be better than rapidly passing laws to appease public opinion without really caring if they make a difference.
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