Unemployed, Black, and with a record: Companies should rethink hiring policies, study suggests

‘Employers need to understand that one big reason they cannot find the workers they need is too often they exclude those who have had involvement with the criminal justice system,’ an expert said

By: - February 22, 2022 1:24 pm

Donnel Drinks, left, a leadership development coordinator for the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, talks to his brother, Damon Drinks, a businessman, while in Center City on Monday about inequities in the criminal justice system (Philadelphia Tribune photo)

By Stephen Williams

PHILADELPHIA —  Since the pandemic began in 2019, many companies are having trouble finding workers, but a new study indicates that more than half of unemployed men in their 30s have some type of criminal history, according to California-based, RAND Corp.

And since African-American men have disproportionately high rates of criminal justice involvement and are more likely to suffer from racism and discrimination, it means it’s more difficult for them to get jobs. In addition, men are more likely than women to have a criminal history, according to the report.

Companies with a shortage of workers may have to re-evaluate their policies on criminal histories, researchers said.

According to the report, released Feb. 18, by the age of 35 — 64% of unemployed men have been arrested and 46% have been convicted, with rates varying only slightly, by race and ethnicity.

“Employers need to understand that one big reason they cannot find the workers they need is too often they exclude those who have had involvement with the criminal justice system,” said Shawn Bushway, the study’s lead author and a senior policy researcher at RAND, a non-profit research group in Santa Monica. “Employers need to reconsider their protocols about how to respond when applicants have some type of criminal history.”

In the study, between the ages of 18 and 35, Black men whether employed or not, were reported to have 33% higher arrest rates than white men, in the same age group. The findings were published in the journal, Science Advances.

But, the study also showed that when considering those men experiencing unemployment, Black, brown and white men had similar rates of contact with the criminal justice system, in most of their life cycles.

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The RAND report showed that unemployed men between the ages of 30 and 38 had “substantial contact” with the criminal justice system. For instance, most had been arrested at least once, 40% had been convicted at least once and more than 20% were incarcerated once or more.

The study indicated that the figures were similar for workers who were discouraged or working fewer hours than they expected.

In the last several decades, aggressive police work has resulted in an estimate that as many as one in three adults in the U.S. have been arrested at some point in their lives, the report states.

In the study, being unemployed was defined not having a job for four or more weeks, in the past year.

The RAND group estimated the number of unemployed young men with criminal histories by using information from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997, which follows a nationally representative group of Americans over the course of their lives. About 9,000 participants were recruited in 1997 and were born during the years 1980 and 1984. Rand researchers examined responses from this group. The study examined the involvement of men in the criminal justice system through 2017.

While other studies have documented unemployment by people who have been incarcerated, the RAND study estimated the incidence of criminal histories among the unemployed.

According to the RAND researchers, the main point of the study is that that employment services should do more to help people cope with their criminal histories.

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“Most government programs focus on providing the unemployed with new skills in order to get them into the workforce,” said Bushway, who is also a professor at the State University of New York at Albany. “But if you only focus on skills development, you are missing a big part of the problem. The unemployment system almost never looks at the role that criminal history plays in keeping people out of the workforce.”

Employers must delve into research about recidivism, Bushway said.

“Most employers believe that most people with criminal histories will commit offenses again,” Bushway said. “But that is not the case. And the risk of reoffending drops dramatically as people spend more time free in the community without a new conviction. Employers need to adopt a more nuanced approach to the issue.”

Stephen Williams is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared

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