Consequences of a Prison Record for Employment
Dr. Decker gave a seminar in NIJ's Research for the Real World series about his research on the impact of race, gender and prison records on finding employment.
Before the seminar, we sat down with Dr. Decker for an interview to discuss his findings and their policy implications.
Why was the study done?
SCOTT DECKER: There had been a lot of prior research on the impact of a prison record on employment chances. It had not been done in the Southwest — large, fast-growing region of the country — nor had it been done with women and Hispanics. There had been research on men, both black men and white men, and the research that had been done didn’t look at the online job application process, and now so many entry-level jobs are applied for online.
So, we wanted to combine those things in this study and try and answer some important questions about the employment of ex-offenders.
The jobs that our subjects applied for were all entry-level jobs. They were in restaurants. They were in sales. They were in service. They were dealing with consumers — but entry-level jobs that would be appropriate for someone with a high school degree or someone who had spent time in prison.
How was the study done?
We did a field experiment, which we based on randomized assignment with 12 categories. We looked at the three race and ethnic groups — whites, African-Americans and Hispanics — the two gender groups — males and females — and then two prison conditions — had a record or hadn’t been to prison. And within that set of three variables, we created 12 categories so that we could compare, for females within race and ethnic groups, whether going to prison affected their job chances.
Three race categories: African-American, white and Hispanic; two gender: male and female; two prison characteristics: record and no record. So what that allowed us to do was to compare a black woman with a prison record to a black woman who did not have a prison record, and their resumes were constructed in such a way as to be virtually identical except for the one who’d been to prison and the one who hadn’t, and that allowed us to test the impact of prison, race and gender on employment.
What did the study show with respect to race?
The bottom line of what the slides show is that a stronger race effect exists for employment than prison effect. Let me restate the finding, because it is so important. Whites who have been to prison do better than blacks and Hispanic males who have not been to prison. That’s not at all what we should find if prison record makes a difference. The key take away from this is, then, that race is still an important determinant of whether or not someone gets a call back or a job offer or a second interview, even more important than whether someone’s been to prison.
What did the study find with respect to gender?
We did find, interestingly enough, that the differences for gender were not as pronounced, except in one circumstance, for women as they were for men. The in-person applications by white women who had not been to prison found over a 20 percent positive response, which is very dramatic and the highest that we found in any of the — in any of the analyses.
A positive response in our study was a call back that either was a second job interview or a job offer itself, which many of our subjects did receive.
Being able to use the Internet is a key to finding jobs today. Jobs are advertised online, applications are submitted online, responses from employers come back online, and so it’s critical that ex-offenders have those skills, or they’re not going to be able to construct a resume, they’re not going to be able to find jobs and they’re not going to be able to submit an application for a job. So getting them up to speed is an important — should be an important condition of release from prison and successful re-entry.
They’ve got to have the ability to go online and look at Career Builder or Craigslist or the online job sources in their community. They also have to have an email address. They’ve got to be able to send and receive attachments and respond to online requests promptly. They can’t wait two or three days, because employers take that as a sign that they’re not interested.
Highlighting job relevant skills
We think, as well, that ex-offenders need to be prepared to deal with rejection. Overall, only 7 percent of the nearly 6,500 jobs we applied for got any kind of a positive response. It’s a very low positive response rate, and so it’s critical that offenders not give up after the first rejection, because the likelihood is there’s going to be several rejections.
When we interviewed business owners and hiring managers, they told us that the most important thing they were looking for was job-relevant experience. So, if it’s a job in a restaurant, prior experience in a restaurant. If it’s a job working in a landscape company, prior experience doing that sort of work. And offenders need to be prepared to tailor their resumes to highlight the relevant experiences for the jobs that they apply for. That needs to be something they do on paper but also when they interview in person to reinforce what’s on their resume.
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