Debate over 'ban the box' laws continues in Iowa

New studies show such reforms may make it harder for minorities with criminal records to land jobs

The “Ban the Box” initiative refers to the box on many applications that asks if the applicant is a felon. (file photo)
The “Ban the Box” initiative refers to the box on many applications that asks if the applicant is a felon. (file photo)

DES MOINES — Advocates for criminal justice reforms have sought laws that prevent an employer from asking, on job applications, whether an applicant has a criminal record.

So- called “ban the box” or “fair chance” laws are designed to prevent employers from discriminating against individuals who have committed a crime but completed their sentence. Such discrimination often disproportionately impacts minorities, especially blacks, studies have shown.

A pair of recent studies, however, suggest ban the box or fair chance laws may have the opposite impact and actually make it harder for minorities to get from an application to a job interview.

Iowa criminal justice reform advocates said they still think such laws can be helpful tools, and disputed the findings of the studies.

Unintended consequences

“Critics of ban the box suggest there are unintended consequences of the law, in that employers might engage in racial discrimination, hurting the very population the policies were implemented to help. This study however, finds no evidence of racial discrimination in the public sector context,” Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa and Nebraska chapters of the NAACP, said in an email interview.

“While there is a long journey ahead to ensure equal hiring standards for all who have been through the criminal justice system, the evidence evokes true optimism about the social and economic possibilities for this population,” Andrews said.

One recent study of ex-offenders in Massachusetts found that regardless of race people with criminal records were less likely to get jobs after ban the box laws were implemented than before, according to a report for the Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonpartisan public policy and research organization.


The study, conducted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, found after a ban the box law was implemented in Massachusetts, the average employment rate of individuals with a criminal record declined by 2.6 percentage points when compared with the average employment rate of individuals without a criminal record.

“We find that contrary to the intended goal, the CORI Reform has a small negative effect on ex- offenders’ employment that grows over time, with mixed effects on earnings and industry composition,” the study says.

Another recent study of private, for-profit employers in New York and New Jersey found after ban the box was implemented more white applicants got called back than black applicants, the Pew report said.

In that study, online job applications from fictitious men with distinctly white and black names were sent to employers before and after the application of ban the box laws. Before ban the box, white applicants received 7 percent more callbacks than similar black applicants; with ban the box in place, white applicants received 43 percent more callbacks than black applicants.

“We have two very good studies that show it’s really hurting young black men who don’t have college degrees and who struggle in the labor market for other reasons,” Jennifer Doleac, an economics professor at the University of Virginia who has studied ban the box laws and thinks they should be scrapped, said in the Pew report. “If this law is getting people interviewed for jobs they’re never going to get, that can become discouraging for job seekers and a waste of everyone’s time.”

Doleac also published her own paper that found young black and Latino men without a college degree were, respectively, 5 percent and 3 percent less likely to be employed after ban the box than they were before it, the Pew report says.

“Racial discrimination is a problem and pervasive in a lot of settings. I think these studies really show though that employers are perfectly happy to hire young black men when they can ask” about their criminal history, Doleac told Pew. “They seem to care more about a criminal record than race.”

advocates question studies

Iowa advocates for criminal justice reform, however, said they question the studies’ findings and remain convinced ban the box and fair chance laws will help rehabilitated individuals with a criminal past find employment.


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“It’s a big deal. It’s a matter of fairness,” said David Walker, a retired professor who taught in Drake University’s law school.

Walker, the regional NAACP and other advocates have pushed for a ban the box law in Iowa. In 2016 a bill was introduced in the Iowa Senate but failed to advance past the early stages of the legislative process.

Supporters of the bill said it would not prevent any employer from eventually looking into an applicant’s criminal history. It only would prevent employers from asking about criminal history on the initial job application.

“(The bill’s goal) was hoping that people would get to have a face-to-face interview to have a chance to meet the person, not just see the statistic,” said Russell Lovell, another retired Drake University Law School professor.

A total of 29 states have ban the box laws at least for public employers; Iowa does not. Nine states, including Illinois and Minnesota, extend the laws to private employers, according to the National Employment Law Project. The New York-based organization publishes research on workers issues and advocates for policies that create jobs and expand access to work.

A different outcome

The NAACP disputed the methodology of the two East Coast studies that suggested ban the box and fair chance laws actually make it more difficult for individuals with a criminal record to get past the job application stage. Andrews pointed to another recent study that suggests those laws work as intended.

Conducted by an economics professor at Connecticut College, the study found ban the box laws for public employees increase by 5 percentage points the probability of employment for a public employee with a criminal record.

“Even if increased racial discrimination occurred after ban the box laws were implemented, this would underscore the need for better and more strictly enforced anti-discrimination laws,” Andrews said. “We know that racial discrimination in employment is persistent. Shouldn’t this discussion about ban the box lead to a deeper commitment to addressing this issue?”

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