When Massachusetts enacted a series of changes beginning in 2010 to help ex-offenders get back into the labor force, the timing seemed fortuitous: the economy was growing again after the recession, and it was widely hoped people with criminal records would find work more easily.
Instead, in the years after the changes, the employment rate of ex-
offenders went down, compared with those without records, according to a study released Tuesday by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.
The first change to the Criminal Offender Record Information system, or CORI as it is known, in 2010 forbid employers from asking applicants about their criminal backgrounds. Employers could still conduct background checks later in the process, but that little box prospective hires checked if they have a criminal record was dropped from job applications, a move known as “ban the box.”
Then in 2012, the state shaved five years off the time period an offender had to wait before getting his criminal record sealed so it is not subject to a background check — to 10 years after a felony conviction, and five years after a misdemeanor. Again, after those changes, the Fed analysts found no improvement in the job rate among ex-offenders.
There was one bright spot: Recidivism among ex-offenders, the rate at which they committed another crime, went down slightly after the changes to the records law. The Boston Fed analysts believe ex-offenders were more likely to stay out of trouble because they had higher expectations of getting a job.
“They know that at least they’d be able to get their foot in the door,” said Robert Triest, director of the Fed’s New England Public Policy Center, which conducted the study. “And so spending their time searching for a job might seem more fruitful than falling back on criminal behavior.”
As for their actual employment prospects, Triest and his colleagues aren’t sure why that hasn’t improved, but have several possible explanations: One is that with their criminal records no longer hanging over them, ex-offenders are pursuing better, but harder-to-get jobs, and turning down lower-paying opportunities they might have settled for in the past.
Conversely, the authors theorize employers are either hiring fewer ex-offenders, or requiring more work experience or education than in the past.
There are more people with records — 1.7 million in Massachusetts in 2014, up from 1.1 million in 2010, according to the Justice Department. And the FBI has been conducting more background checks on behalf of employers and others: roughly 17 million nationwide in 2012, six times the number a decade earlier, according to the National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group in New York.
Differences in the tightening labor market were factored into the study, the authors said, as were other employment trends. And still the employment rates of ex-offenders took a hit.
The changes to the records law may have also increased the competition among ex-offenders for jobs, as more sought work, said Pauline Quirion, director of the CORI and Re-entry Project at Greater Boston Legal Services. This influx of applicants, many of whom were likely weeded out later by background checks, could be affecting the employment rate, she said.
The first change in the law, to job applications, went into effect just as employers started hiring again after the recession, she noted, which meant ex-offenders were competing with large numbers of unemployed people without records. “The reality is employers don’t like to hire anybody with a record,” Quirion said.
The new Fed study is in line with a previous analysis of the “ban the box” law by the Boston Foundation in 2012. That found ex-offenders were indeed getting more interviews, but those did not necessarily leading to jobs.
But in other states, similar changes to records laws have had a positive effect. In separate studies conducted in the District of Columbia and Durham County, North Carolina, the number of people with criminal backgrounds who found work increased after legislative changes.
So far 25 states, Washington, and more than 150 cities and counties have enacted policies to limit or delay employers’ access to candidates’ criminal histories. Nine states now don’t allow private employers to ask about a person’s convictions on job applications.
However, several other recent academic studies have found evidence that “ban the box” policies are hurting black applicants. Without the ability to see a candidate’s criminal history on a job application, employers are less likely to call back black applicants, according to the studies, suggesting employers assume these applicants are more likely to have a criminal record.
The Fed authors and advocates say more changes are needed to reintegrate ex-offenders into society. The wait times to seal records are still too long, said Lew Finfer of Jobs Not Jails, a coalition lobbying to cut the time to three years for misdemeanors, and seven for felonies.
Massachusetts changes have been limited, Finfer said, so it’s not surprising there hasn’t been much impact. “CORI is this huge barrier to people getting jobs,” he said. “It’s almost like prison continued.”