Last spring, the 18-member
2020-21 class of Institute
Visiting Scholars was named.
Some established, some
emerging, they bring a
diversity of backgrounds and
research interests as they
examine what sorts of policies
work to improve economic
opportunity and inclusion,
Since the 1970s, changes to sentencing laws have led to a dramatic
increase in the U.S. correctional population. There are now more
than 100 million adult Americans with some form of criminal record.
That’s one in three adults.
“Having a criminal
record is really
like having a death
sentence in the
That, says Terry-Ann Craigie, presents a significant problem for
the labor market. A criminal record is a barrier to securing many
of society’s goods, like education and housing, but it is especially
detrimental to those seeking employment.
“Having a criminal record is really like having a
death sentence in the labor market,” Craigie said.
Craigie, who pursued a degree in economics
because she says the field has a “grand toolkit for
addressing big social problems,” took a closer look at
this particular problem for those who have come to
be called the “justice-involved,” that is, citizens who
have had contact with the criminal justice system.
Until fairly recently, many applications for public
sector jobs included a check box about criminal
history. In 2003, a grassroots effort to Ban the Box
was launched, encouraging public employers to defer this question
until later in the hiring process. This way, qualified candidates are
not prematurely eliminated.
Craigie shows that the adoption of Ban the Box in many state
and local jurisdictions increased the odds of securing a public
sector job by 30 percent. As the country emerged from the Great
Recession, these policies, in combination with a tightening labor
market, created a perfect storm.
Early opponents of Ban the Box worried that if a person with a
criminal record was hired for a job, then someone without a record
probably wasn’t. Craigie says this doesn’t bear out.
As overall unemployment fell to record lows in the wake of the
recession, Black unemployment did too. “Disproportionately, Blacks
and Latinos have criminal records, and we know that their rate of
unemployment [in the years that followed] fell to close to 5 percent.”
But what will a coronavirus-induced recession mean for the
justice-involved? As the odds of finding a job go down, the risk of
recidivism goes up. Further complicating the issue: Prison populations
have somewhat declined to help maintain social distancing standards.
“We’re entering a recession once again, so what is going to happen
to this population?” Craigie asked. “[Will] we continue to treat
them as marginalized? I hope not.”
More Scholar Spotlights from this issue