In their discussion of the racial impacts of the current recession (pdf here), the Applied Research Center includes data on and first-person accounts of how having a criminal record affects the ability to get a job.

Research shows that having a criminal record negatively affects the likelihood of being considered for a job. Devah Pager conducted a matched-pair experiment in which she had male testers apply for the same entry-level jobs advertised in Milwaukee newspapers. She gave the assistants fake credentials that make them equivalent in terms of education, job experience, and so on; she had two sets of testers, one Black and one White. One tester from each pair was instructed to indicate that they had a past non-violent drug possession offense. Pager then collected data on how many of the applicants were called back for an interview after submitting their applications (with the fake credentials). The results indicate that having even a non-violent drug offense had a significant impact on rates of callbacks:


What was surprising was that race actually turned out to be more significant than a criminal background. Notice that employers were more likely to call Whites with a criminal record (17% were offered an interview) than Blacks without a criminal record (14%). And while having a criminal background hurt all applicants’ chances of getting an interview, African Americans with a non-violent offense faced particularly dismal employment prospects. Imagine if the fake criminal offense had been for a property or violent crime. In addition, according to Pager, employers seemed to expect that Black applicants might have a criminal record:


“When people think of Black men they think of a criminal. It affects the way Black men are treated in the labor market. In fact, Black testers in our study were likely to be asked up front if they have a criminal record, while whites were rarely asked, so you can see that there are expectations about Black applicants that shape the decisions.”

Data compiled by Bruce Western on unemployment rates for those with a criminal background compared to those without shows the serious barriers to employment released prisoners face:

joblessness prison

Again we see that both criminal background and race play a big role in access to employment, and that was before the recession started. African American men face a double barrier due to racial discrimination combined with higher rates of incarceration for Black men. In a separate report Bruce Western shows just how pronounced this is, comparing rates of incarceration for White and Black men to other types of institutional membership or participation:

Group Membership

Here we have the percent of Black and White men who have been incarcerated by age 30-34, along with the percent experiencing several other important life events:

Life Event

As both tables indicate, incarceration plays a much larger role in the life of Black men than White men; Black men aged 30-34 are nearly twice as likely to have gone to prison than to have a Bachelor’s degree. As a result, employers’ discomfort with hiring individuals with criminal backgrounds will automatically disadvantage African American men more than White men when it comes to the labor market.

Also see our posts on America’s high imprisonment rate (here and here), the percentage of children with a parent in prison, by race, black/white disparities in prison sentences, the distribution of violent and non-violent crime, and how racial profiling doesn’t work.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.
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