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Urban Institute Releases Report Detailing the Effects of Criminal Background Checks on Employment

by Derek Gilna

The Justice Policy Center, part of the nonprofit Urban Institute, released a March 2017 report examining the impact criminal background checks have on employment and recidivism. According to a recent study, “72 percent of companies perform background checks, and 82 percent of those companies screen potential employees for their criminal histories.”

The report warns that criminal background checks “often yield inaccurate and incomplete data,” with some of them not distinguishing “between arrests that resulted in conviction and those that did not.” Additionally, others “include criminal records that have been legally expunged.” Such faulty background checks often result in excluding otherwise qualified individuals from gaining employment.

Most federal, state, and local law enforcement databases are likely to include any contact between individuals and law enforcement, even if that contact did not result in an arrest, charges, or conviction. Another troubling aspect of some databases is the fact they often double or even triple count the same incident, resulting in an unfairly inflated impression of a person’s criminal record.

Employers often perform criminal background checks to screen potential employees for offenses directly related to the work that they would be performing as well as to minimize their legal exposure. Even these types of background checks result in many collateral consequences. According to the report, they “disproportionately affect people who are low income and black or Hispanic, who are also more likely to come into contact with the justice system.”  The report notes that individuals with criminal records, even inaccurate or inflated ones, “struggle to obtain a driver’s license, own a reliable means of transportation, acquire relatively stable housing, and maintain proper identification documents.” Undoubtedly, people without legal employment are more at risk to recidivate than those who are gainfully employed.

The admittedly limited data that are available indicated that individuals with criminal records “pose no greater risk to the public or perform worse on the job than the general population.” In fact, one study concluded that even people arrested for aggravated assault, one of the most serious offenses included in the study sample, “are no more likely to commit a crime as other community members of the same age 4.3 years following the arrest.” 

Finally, the report observes that employers’ “hesitation to hire people with a record is not necessarily grounded in current empirical evidence” and that more data-driven studies are necessary to “provide useful information to employers about when it is risky to hire someone with a criminal record and when it is safe to overlook someone’s prior criminal history.” Unfortunately, until those data become available, many employers will continue to reject qualified job candidates based upon their criminal record. 


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