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The mark of a criminal record

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  • Devah Pager

Abstract

Over the past three decades, the number of prison inmates has increased by more than 500 percent, leaving the United States the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world. With over two million individuals currently incarcerated, and over half a million prisoners released each year, the large and growing numbers of men being processed through the criminal justice system raises important questions about the consequences of this massive institutional intervention. This paper focuses on the consequences of incarceration for the employment outcomes of black and white job seekers. The manuscript is comprised of two studies: the first, a large-scale experimental audit of employers in Milwaukee, used matched pairs of young men to apply for real entry-level jobs to measure the extent to which employers use information about criminal histories and race to screen out otherwise qualified applicants. Indeed, the results of the audit study provide clear evidence for the dramatic impact of both a criminal record and race on employment opportunities: Ex-offenders are one-half to one-third as likely to receive initial consideration from employers relative to equivalent applicants without criminal records. Perhaps most striking, the results show that even blacks without a criminal record fare no better-and perhaps worse-than do whites with criminal records.The second study, a telephone survey of these same employers, gathered self-reported information about the considerations and concerns of employers in hiring entry-level workers, with a specific focus on employers' reactions to applicants with criminal backgrounds. By linking results from the audit study to those of the employer survey, I find that employers' self-reports vastly understate the barriers faced by both blacks and ex-offenders seeking entry-level employment. Though employer surveys can tell us a great deal of useful information about the relative preferences of employers, extreme caution should be used in generalizing these results to estimates of actual behavior. The findings of this project reveal an important, and much under-recognized, mechanism of stratification. A criminal record presents a major barrier to employment, with important implications for racial disparities.

Suggested Citation

  • Devah Pager, 2003. "The mark of a criminal record," Natural Field Experiments 00319, The Field Experiments Website.
  • Handle: RePEc:feb:natura:00319
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    6. Richard B. Freeman & Harry J. Holzer, 1986. "The Black Youth Employment Crisis," NBER Books, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc, number free86-1, July.
    7. Holzer, Harry J & Raphael, Steven & Stoll, Michael A, 2006. "Perceived Criminality, Criminal Background Checks, and the Racial Hiring Practices of Employers," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 49(2), pages 451-480, October.
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    12. repec:pri:wwseco:dp208 is not listed on IDEAS
    13. Richard B. Freeman, 1991. "Crime and the Employment of Disadvantaged Youths," NBER Working Papers 3875, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    14. Richard Freeman, 1987. "The relation of criminal activity to black youth employment," The Review of Black Political Economy, Springer;National Economic Association, vol. 16(1), pages 99-107, June.
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