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Consequences of a Prison Record for Employment: How Do Race, Ethnicity & Gender Factor In?

Dr. Scott Decker, Ph.D., Arizona State University

Scientific studies have long documented the negative impact of a prison record on a person's ability to find employment. But what is the impact when gender and race/ethnicity are factored in? Also, most jobs are now advertised online — so how does this affect the ability of former prisoners to find a job?

Dr. Scott Decker and his colleagues have recently completed an in-depth examination of the roles of race, gender, and education in one of the greatest social challenges facing our nation today: employment for criminal offenders returning to the community. The findings — including the impact of having some post-high school education — may surprise you. Based on the results of this three-year study, Dr. Decker makes recommendations that could be critically important as decision-makers craft pre- and post-release policies and strategies to help more than 600,000 criminal offenders who return to the community every year, particularly in this increasingly online world.

MR. GREG RIDGEWAY: All right, thank you for everyone. It’s great that so many of you were able to brave the snow this morning to get here. It’s fantastic to have you all here. Welcome to today’s NIJ’s Research for the Real World seminar. I am Greg Ridgeway, Acting Director of the National Institute of Justice. And these seminars are really special for us. We always feature research that is about changing how we think about policies and practices in the criminal justice system.

So it’s my distinct pleasure to introduce today’s speaker, Professor Scott Decker. Professor Decker is the Foundation Professor and Director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University. He’s also a fellow of the American Society of Criminology. Here, we know a lot about his work on gangs in particular. He’s a widely known scholar in that area.

He has some fascinating recent papers, for example, one on the role of gangs in athletics, title of the recent paper, “Is the Quarterback a ‘Crip’?” You can look at that. Also, he’s got a paper on the role of social media in gangs, and you can look up that paper entitled, “What the F[#@%] is a Facebook?” So you can find that also on his website.

He was also a contributor to a recent NIJ-CDC publication called The Changing Course.It’s about preventing gang membership. We have a couple copies, maybe one or two, over on the table there. We also have a sort of much smaller, more condensed review of that book; you can grab that from the table as well. And basically, it’s all about different ways and different roles and different components of the criminal justice system to prevent gang membership. Professor Decker wrote a very fascinating chapter on the role of police in preventing gang membership.

He also has a recent book published just last year, I think it was, on Confronting Gangs: Crime and Community, so check that out, too, if you can.

Today, he’ll be discussing the consequences of a prison record for employment. He tells me that the findings will surprise us. So please join me in being prepared to be surprised and in welcoming Professor Scott Decker.

PROFESSOR SCOTT DECKER: Well, thank you and thank you for presenting some weather that a guy from Arizona who grew up in Chicago misses a little bit. I want to first acknowledge Marilyn Moses, who was our grant monitor on this project and played an important role in whatever success we’ve achieved. Also, my thanks to my co-PI, Cassie Spann, and Natalie Ortiz, who’s the Ph.D. student who worked with us, and as you’ll hear, in a variety of different roles that most research assistants and Ph.D. students don’t begin to appreciate.

What I’m going to discuss today is my experience, our experience, over the course of the last three years in the job market. And of course, it’s been an interesting three years in the job market given the economy and the downturn and the growth in unemployment, and particularly in the sectors of employment that unemployment has grown the most.

But the tagline is as follows: In the past three years, my team and I applied for nearly 7,000 jobs, and to summarize our experience, we didn’t do so well. Less than 8 percent of the time did we get any kind of positive response or feedback. And of course, it wasn’t myself, a 60-something-year-old white male with college degrees who was applying for these jobs; it was individuals who indicated on their resumes that they had a prison record of some sort — more details on that later — and individuals who were African American, white, Hispanic, male and female, and you’ll see the details of that design in a minute. So thanks to NIJ and thanks to Marilyn.

You’ll see that there are a number of different components to this study, a lot of moving parts, if you will, and throughout, we managed to record comments based on the experiences of our testers. So the basic process was to try and take Devah Pager’s well-known work about the mark of a criminal record and expand it beyond black, white, and male, and look at the impact for females, at Hispanics as another race ethnic category, and do this work in the Southwest, which as you know, rapidly growing part of the country; imprisonment growth, except interestingly in California, has matched population growth and exceeded population growth.

And what many of our testers found, whether they went out in person or we applied online — and that’s the other major change from Devah Pager’s work, and that is the use of an online job application process. I am fond of saying even as a 63-year-old something, the world is lived online. When people complain about too much Facebook, too much online courses, too much online dating, too much online world, I ask them how they do their banking, I ask them how they stay in touch with their family members. The world is lived online and that includes the job application process, particularly at entry-level jobs.

And so, these quotes spiced in throughout the talk reflect the experiences of our in-person testers. We all know the broader dimensions of the re-entry crisis. There are a couple of sobering and unfortunate facts that a good reader of a reasonable daily newspaper would know: most prisoners come back. This is a wager you can win at any local establishment with an unknowing individual on the stool next to you: we lock them up and throw away the key.

Well, they find the key and come back. We know most of them don’t do very well when they come back, especially younger people coming out of prison. And we also know that correction costs are skyrocketing, and perhaps it’s in that last fact that our hope for doing something about imprisonment lies, and that may spark movement for reform more than anything else.

We also know that what matters for re-entry is employment. When I’m asked, “Okay, Mr. Criminologist” — on the airplane or in public — “What are the two best things we can do about crime?” I cite our friend and colleague John Laub and his work and say, “Get them married and get them jobs.” And if we can do those two things, we’re going to make progress in bringing stability and perhaps reform to the lives of individuals who have been in prison.

Employment also has a variety of other benefits. It’s a fulcrum for housing. It’s also in a technical sense in most states required as a condition of parole. So they need to get a job, and yet, we know that the prospects for doing so are not very good.

There are lots of barriers to employment, some of them realistic, some of them based in fact. Many employers are hesitant to hire people with a criminal record; that’s pretty well established. They’re concerned about violence in the workplace. They’re concerned about bonding them. They’re concerned about the lack of soft skills. I have done, Greg mentioned, my work in the gangs area, considerable amount of work with Father Greg Boyle in Los Angeles, Homeboy Industries. “Nothing stops a bullet like a job” is the sort of motto at Homeboy Industries.

They have two lasers that run 18 hours a day that are removing tattoos, and the circumstance in LA has reached the point that the only people eligible for tattoo removal are people who have tattoos on the front of their face; side of the neck, under their chin, on their head, they’re next in line. And as Greg is fond of saying, you don’t want to pull up to the drive-through window at a fast food restaurant and have your burger and your fries handed to you by someone with an MS-13 tattoo all over their face. It speaks to concerns about offenders and ex-prisoners.

And so, now we get to Arizona. About two-thirds of everything bad in Arizona happens in Maricopa County. That’s been my metric: homicides, crimes, unemployment, prisoners. We account for about two-thirds of the state’s population, so we account for about two-thirds of the bad stuff that goes on.

As you’ll see in a minute, our prison population is highly concentrated, and that suggests, I think, some alternatives and some interventions in addition to employment. Most parolees are drug or property offenders, and that has consequences for our study because we cue on drug offenses in the background and the prison population is majority white, although that is changing.

And here is Phoenix. You should know that those — we love right angles, I have learned, in Maricopa County and Phoenix. If you’ve been, you know what I’m talking about, the streets are all laid out on half-mile grids except for those little gray splotchy things, and those are mountains. But if we could figure out how to run the streets at right angles through the mountains, they would do that, I’m sure.

The brightest red squares are half-square-mile by half-square-mile locations where the Department of Corrections has spent over a million, and in many of them, approaching $2 million a year over the last 10 years on the residents of that half-square-mile by half-square-mile grid. Now, I don’t want to disappoint my dissertation mentor by pointing out the very obvious that if we think we’re spending a million to 2 million a year for an eight- or 10-year period in a half-square-mile by half-square-mile area, maybe we ought to go in and change some structural things in those neighborhoods. Maybe we ought to look at schools. Maybe we ought to be making some structural rather than individual level changes. But it does tell us where we need to go and where we need to start. And I think the mapping revolution that hit the police and hot spot policing hasn’t quite moved over to Corrections or Probation or Parole as effectively yet.

There’s a long history of using employer audits and correspondence tests. They’re based on an experimental design. They gained ascendency in the ’50s and ’60s over concerns about housing discrimination. And in their simplest form, a matched pair of individuals, an African-American man and a white man who looked about the same and had the same resumes that were created, went and applied to rent a house, went and applied to rent an apartment, went and applied for a loan to purchase a house.

And as you know, because the findings became an important part of Supreme Court and case law, the African American who had similar credentials did much worse, did much more poorly.

We also know that in the use of employer audits and correspondence tests that African Americans do much worse in getting positive responses to job applications, and positive responses doesn’t mean only or necessarily a job offer but it means a callback. And it’s obviously the case if you don’t get a callback, you’re not going to be, end up with a job.

Devah Pager’s work is quite well known in this area, first in Milwaukee and then in New York, looking at experiences of whites and African Americans, and the sort of well-known and often discussed finding from Milwaukee is that white males with a prison record are more likely to get a job callback and a job offer than black males without a prison record. I want to say it again because it doesn’t make a lot of sense off the bat. White guys who went to prison are more likely to get a job, and significantly so, than African-American men who had never been to prison.

So Pager’s interest initially was — and NIJ funded; she had a dissertation fellowship many years ago, and NIJ funded her initial work in Milwaukee — that as important as imprisonment was, and the stain, the mark of a criminal record, race was even more important.

She replicated the work in New York City and found — and her work there led us to do some of the qualitative interviewing in meetings with our team on a biweekly basis that I’ll talk about. She had the finding that was an unexpected finding at a fried chicken restaurant in Harlem owned by a Puerto Rican couple. The white guys were turned away; both the African Americans, the one with the prison and without the prison record, were offered the job. And all of the testers are trained, when they’re called back or offered a job, to ask, “Well, what in my record made you interested in hiring me?”

And with no guile, the husband of the Puerto Rican couple looked each of them in the eye and said, “Everyone knows black people know everything there is to know about preparing chicken.” Which is to say that racial stereotypes can cut a variety of different ways, though they almost always work to disadvantage. We have similar kinds of results that I will tell you about, though they have to do with gender and not with race.

So our employment audit project had a number of goals. We wanted to examine black, white, and Hispanic experiences in the job market at the same time. We wanted — so, right, Greg is doing three; he’s building the design. We looked at male and female times two, and then we looked at prison record and no prison record times two. And we also wanted to mention — and we have Marilyn Moses to thank for encouraging this, educational attainment — whether or not they had a community college degree.

And rather than multiplying our 12-cell design by another two and finding enough — and you’ll see as well statistical power was an issue — we did block randomization on the community college degree. The work’s not been done in the Southwest before, and it was done in challenging economic times.

And when I talked at the American Correctional Association last summer about this, somebody said, “Well, gee, if only you’d have done this when the economy was better,” and I said, “Well, if I’d had known the economy was going to do what it did, I wouldn’t have been buying a new house.” And it may be more important to understand in a bad economy how prisoners fare because they’re most likely to be in that group that’s last hired and first fired.

So we did three components to this study. We did employer audits, and we applied for jobs online in this component of the project. And then we did correspondence tests where we had pairs of matched individuals, and the university on, oh, I don’t know, a half dozen times, God bless them, wanted to — first the legal counsel said, “You can’t do this,” and I said, “Well, the Justice Department says otherwise, but let’s have a conversation,” and then HR said, “You can’t advertise for jobs and ask for a picture.” And so, I couldn’t have a 6-foot-4 guy and a 5-foot-4 guy go in and apply for the same landscaping job. There may be a bias that says I want a bigger, stronger guy.

And so, we needed to find matched individuals, and that includes the young African-American woman who had a big diamond thing in her nose and cornrows, and we said, “You’re perfect. We like you; we want to hire you. You’re a perfect match with our other African-American woman, except she doesn’t have cornrows and there might be a bias against cornrows, and employers might also be biased against people who have the diamond stud in there.”

She said, “Oh, I’d be happy to take those out. For the sake of the project, I’ll take those out, and tell me how my hair should be.” And so, Natalie Ortiz and I did the initial screenings and the interviews, and I have to say I was quite uncomfortable taking skin tone, taking weight, taking height into consideration and making hiring decisions for people. It runs against everything that we’re taught in any form of employment. But I could, if there is bias against darker-skinned Hispanics than light-skinned Hispanics, if there is bias in favor of tall versus short, so we needed them to be matched on as many physical characteristics as possible.

And even then, the one thing, we did have one tester effect, and we had to work with one of our Hispanic women to stop smiling because she just had this big smile, and when she smiled, everybody said, “Oh, this is, yeah, we want to hire you.” And so, we had to practice, have her practice not smiling. These are not things one learns in Hershey and Selvan, for example, or one’s research methods text.

Then we also went back and interviewed 42 of the employers who we had sent testers to. We gave them on an iPad a sample resume and said, “What do you like about this applicant; what don’t you like?” And then we had a set of questions about things that made job applicants more hirable or more desirable or, in some cases, less desirable.

So in the correspondence method, we applied for jobs online. It is now the case that we did interviews with parole officials in Arizona. The most frequent form of job application for parolees is online. We used Craigslist and CareerBuilder, which is what the Arizona Department of Corrections has their parolees use. We applied for jobs over a 16-week period in the summer of 2011. We repeated it during the exact same period in the summer of 2012. All 12 of our make-believe — and we also had a long talk about identity theft, and we have a pretty strict — some of you may have heard some things about legislation and laws in the state of Arizona — we have a pretty strict identity theft law so you couldn’t apply for a job under a different person’s name with certain identifying information, so we made sure that we were safe on that.

We applied for entry-level jobs in the three sectors the Department of Corrections told us were the most likely to be applied for by parolees — generalized labor, customer service, and food service — and jobs that only required no more than a high school degree; wouldn’t be a fair test to send somebody with a high school degree to apply for a job that required college or beyond.

And this is what the basic research design looks like is that within each gender across the rows, each race has a prison/no-prison condition, and within each race, we’ve got prison/no prison for each of the genders.

Now, it’s a pretty clean design on this slide, and it was certainly a pretty clean design as one wrote up the proposal, and the final report makes it look clean though some of the dirtier parts are told in the final report because no field experiment ever goes as it’s planned or as it’s designed. And if it does, congratulations to whomever did it and I want to — I want to see the documentation.

So we created 12 fictitious applicants. We had to — first, we had to come up with names. There are names that are distinctively race and ethnic linked. So the whitest name, last name in America — and there are people whose research careers are built investigating just this topic, and I’m grateful that they’ve done it — is Yoder. So the highest percentage of people named Yoder in America are white, higher than any other last name. So if there’s a Yoder in the audience today, congratulations. And if you’re not white, then you’re in a very small category.

So we had to cue racial identity with first and last name, but we didn’t want to do it in a way that was so excessive and over the top. So we didn’t have like Buffy Yoder or what, a very excessive, what we came to call excessively racially identified names. And so, we went through that. We came up with our 12 names because nowhere on the resume does it say Scott Decker, white male; it’ll say Scott Decker and where he lives and what he’s been to prison for, and the like.

We signaled criminal record by their job in prison. So Arizona Correctional Facility, Winslow, Arizona, Kitchen Service Worker I, and there would be a little sentence that described what I did as a prisoner working, and I peeled potatoes, mopped the floor, served food, whatever I did. Everybody had a similar set of job skills and qualifications, similar length of time periods except for the roughly two years that people were imprisoned for drug sales. High schools was matched within pair, and we randomly assigned associates degree in a block randomization technique that I could talk more about afterward if you’re interested.

And so, then we had to create an email address for all 12 of these individuals, and we then found what the most popular email addresses were in Maricopa County, whether it was Gmail or MSN or Yahoo or whatever the extension would be. And we had them randomly assigned because there might be bias in favor of Gmail over MSN, or Yahoo over, and so, we randomly assigned those.

And then, the next thing we had to do was to get — you know, some people still use a telephone, so we rented 12 cell phones for a three-year period, and that set off a university audit, and the university auditor thought I was — the first thought was that I was giving my graduate students a cell phone as a perk. And I said, “You must not know something about this demographic: they all have their own cell phones, and it’s the only phone they have. They don’t have these landline phones.”

So we created the 12 phones. And you look, you think now about applying for 6,200 jobs online; that means we’re monitoring the 12 email accounts and the 12 cell phones on a regular basis for the 30 — 3,050 roughly male job applicants and the 3,050 roughly female applicants. So over 6,100 applications to 518 different employers, a few more in customer service because the 199, 176, 143 reflect the availability. We ran out of jobs to apply for, and pretty even, no, exactly evenly distributed across race, ethnicity, gender, and the prison test condition, about equally distributed across the community college; 68 percent of them went in in 2012 when the job market improved substantially, and the majority of the jobs were found on Craigslist.

And herein lies — I mean, I’m going to talk about the policy. I really want to spend more time talking about policy than the setup. The real challenge is for, of course, offenders and the Internet and facility with being able to apply for jobs online.

And Greg mentioned the “What the F[#@%] is a Facebook?” article. Indeed, that was what one of — a young woman actually I interviewed at Father Boyle’s in LA, who had been in prison for 11 years, and we were among other things, we were looking at transition and re-entry, but also use of technology and the Internet, and this woman had been in prison for 11 years, had just gotten out two or three weeks before, and I said, “Boy, 11 years, that seems like a long time to be in prison; what were you in prison for?” And she said, “Well, I shot that woman in the stomach, and when she called me a bad name, I shot her in the face, and then the judge gave me 11 years.” And I said, “Hmm, okay, 11 years. Imagine,” and then she said, “Mister, what the heck is a Facebook?”

If you’ve been in prison for 11 years, not only have you missed Facebook, you missed email and downloading things from a website and Craigslist, and there’s a whole world that you’re largely unaware of.

So the dependent variable includes a callback that says, “Hey, we want you to come interview again,” or “You’ve moved to the next level,” or, and emails that say the same. And unlike Devah Pager, who found during her experiment about a 15 or 16 percent success rate, much lower for us, just under 7.5 percent produced any form of a positive response, which says something about the economic times, and we think perhaps says something about employment in Arizona.

So we fussed a long time with putting this in a form that’s consumable because we sure have cross-classified random effects, model formulas and tables we could show, until the weather warms up in April. But these seemed to be the best way to present it.

And what each of these show, first for men, is the online applications, the differences within race for whites with a prison, without, with no prison, then the prison; for African Americans; and then for Hispanics. And while there’s no difference for whites whether you’ve been to prison or not in terms of a successful positive response to your job application, there are clear though not significant differences within race for blacks as well as for Hispanics.

And the Hispanic positive response looks very much like the white response for men, but African Americans, both those who have not been to prison and those who have been to prison, are considerably lower, and we replicate what Pager found in comparing white men who have been to prison to African-American men who have not been to prison, and find, though not a statistically significant difference, that African-American men who have not been to prison do worse than white men who have been to prison in the job market.

We now look at the female results, and females tend to do a little bit better in the job market, particularly white females. But yet again, and not significant, and, but small, but white women who’ve been to prison, more likely to get a positive response to their job application than African-American men — women who have not been to prison, and Hispanic women look a little different.

Now, the audit study involved sending our matched pairs in person to apply, and this is where things got really crazy because we had these 12 individuals that we hired. And so, this Beatles visit to Ed Sullivan has sort of made people know who Ed Sullivan is who may not have, but you may remember, those of you who do remember, Ed used to have somebody who would spin plates on a stick, and they’d spin the plates and they’d get one, and then they’d come back and they did two, and they’d do — well, this is our 12 auditors because the minute we’d get the 12th one hired, the first or the third one would get another job, or their girlfriend would say, “You need to spend more time at home.”

So we had the challenge of trying to replace auditors or test without changing auditors because if you change the auditors, you may introduce some unknown bias that you’re not measuring and you’re not aware of.

We do find that whites continue to do much better than African Americans or Hispanics; that whites with a prison record do about as well as African Americans with no prison record, and about twice as well as Hispanics either with or without a prison record. And you should know that the in-person applicants were all at food service; they were all at restaurant jobs. And those are the male results.

And here’s the female results. So remember the Hispanic woman I mentioned who smiled too much? We ran this with and without her, tester effect, right, smiling, and it turns out that she doesn’t account for all but she accounts for about half of the difference between those with no prison and those who had been to prison. I want to come back and talk a little bit about the incongruent finding for white women that those with a prison record did better than those without.

A number of the employers that we interviewed said — remember when I told the story about the Puerto Rican family that owned the chicken restaurant — sometimes stereotypes work in ways that we don’t fully understand. A number of the employers said, “I would rather have somebody who’s been on parole because I control them. I know if they don’t bring their backside to work on time, I can call their parole officer and I’ve got an ally in making sure that they behave. And if they give me any trouble, I can threaten to fire them, and they know they’ve got to have a job to stay out of prison. And they know they’re in trouble with their parole officer if they’re not working.”

So it gives me more leverage, so sometimes, it may help them get a job, but it may help them get a job under circumstances that produce what some might call a more hostile workplace environment.

So here’s a few more quotes from some of our in-person auditors. Many of them found that they would apply for a front-of-house job, and they’d be steered to the back of the house once the prison condition was known. So there’s a waiter’s job and they would come in and apply for a waiter’s job, and the manager would look at the resume and say, “Oh, those are all taken, but I’ve got a dishwasher’s job back here that would be just perfect for you.”

In other instances, they read the resume and they’re all one-page resumes, and they’re bulleted and it’s clear and easy to see, and they say, “Okay, oh yeah, you’ve had experience and you have a high school degree,” and they get about to the middle of the page where the fact that they had worked in prison is stated, and they’d say, “Oh, the position’s been filled.”

And we had these team meetings, and we’d meet every other week, and when we started, there was a little competition among the team about people wanting to do well and wanting to get a job. And our Hispanic and African-American males would come to the meetings and kind of glower at the white guys who were getting callbacks right and left, prison or no prison.

And finally, Juan, one of our Hispanic testers, said, “I’m sick of not getting a job offer,” and we said, “Juan, you know, you’re a college student, you have a job, you’re working here, we’re paying you to work with the university, you’re going to get —” They did get into assuming the role, if you will, and I had a long talk with Devah Pager’s field manager on a couple of occasions, and he said they had the exact same thing, that there was some animosity among the auditors because of the overt racial discrimination that the Hispanic and the African-American auditors faced.

So we did a cross-classified random effects model with a multilevel modeling framework. One of the things that took me a long time in my career to arrive at was the decision to hire a biostatistician, and that proved to be a good decision, I think, for a lot of reasons. We looked at different — three levels, three sources of random variation, individual characteristics, to try and control for tester effects and changes in testers, resume effects and job type. We didn’t find them. We also didn’t find much that was statistically significant in the multivariate models.

Statistical power is an issue. Devah Pager was at a 15 percent favorable response rate. We were down at 7.43. So the number of cases one needs to detect an effect at that level goes up dramatically, and that’s a challenge certainly for our in-person audits as well as for our online correspondence test.

But this is what I want to spend a little more time talking on, about because it’s something we didn’t expect. I told Greg this morning when we talked that about three weeks into the interview process, separately, two of our women testers came in and said, “Scott, there’s something different going on here. I can’t quite put my hand on it, I can’t, but I get a sense when I apply for the jobs that something inappropriate is going on.”

And in one of the cases, the woman who had applied for a job in-person said, “The hiring manager took me to the back of the restaurant and told me that I was a very attractive woman,” and she said, “That made me uncomfortable.” And then, he asked her if she had a boyfriend, if she had children, if she liked to drink, if she would stay after work and party with the group because they all liked to party.

And one of the other employers held his hands out to her and said, “You see how big my hands are? Do you know what that means?” And another employer said, “See how big my feet are? You know what that means, don’t you?”

So these are not subtle, but overt forms of sexual harassment and sexual discrimination that our female auditors faced. And so, it was not something we expected. It was not something we expected at all.

Now, these are restaurant jobs, and at a restaurant job presenting oneself clean-cut and well taken care of and appropriately dressed — oh, and by the way, we bought them all two pairs of khaki pants and two polo shirts of kind of neutral colors so that when they went in, they didn’t have the shirt that said, “I’m with whomever,” or their pants were saggy. I mean, we wanted them to look presentable and pretty much alike. But we didn’t expect to see these sorts of things happening, and maybe it’s because we were naïve, and in particular, maybe my naïveté in not expecting these to occur in 2013.

And here’s another woman who was — didn’t have that kind of EEO 101 job application experience that one might hope would be more prevalent.

So, we then went to look at the interview, and it was the response of — that the women received in their application that led us to interview employers and ask additional questions.

Half of the people that we interviewed, 51 percent, said they had hired someone in the past who had a criminal record. Was a long time ago I worked in food service, and I know a couple of the fellows that worked in the place I worked had been to prison; not uncommon, good entry-level spot to start. They all used online applications to some extent. That changes the employment game. And the recession, of course, made it much more difficult to detect effects.

We did just a short survey with employers, gave them a hypothetical — this is what a hypothetical resume would look like, and then asked them to highlight the most salient aspects of that for the decision to hire or not hire. And then we asked a series of characteristics that may be stigmatizing to individuals who were being hired. Somebody who’s got a GED; somebody who’s previously on welfare, there may be stigma attached to being a welfare recipient, or in a government-sponsored project; people who had been unemployed, certainly prior unemployment, a characteristic for most prisoners was a negative; not much in the way of work time experience. Jail, prison, and arrest certainly drive the definitely-would-hires down, though many employers were still open to the possibility. But I think the last row, and not a significant difference, but people who were on parole are much less likely, less desirable employees in the minds, for food service jobs, entry-level food service jobs of the employers that we worked with.

And then we asked about — and this raises the Blumstein and Nakamura recent work — people who would never hire if somebody had been in prison, and, but also the mean number of years. This is sort of, when does the stain get washed away, right? How long is the red mark worn? And the mean hovers between 2.38 and 2.92.

Interestingly, the drug crime goes away faster than the violent crime, and it’s the property crime, and I suppose if you own a business where there is property to be stolen and shoplifted, that that would be a legitimate and a valid concern.

These are concerns, you know: “Do you have children?” Never asked of a man but asked of women in over 70 percent of the circumstances. “Do you have child care?” — asked in over 80 percent of the times women say they have a child. “And do you have good transportation?” — disproportionately asked of women than men. These are not questions that one expects, and these are not questions they’re being prepared for by the job counselors in parole.

So implications for policy and practice: Hooray, finally, at last. The training on the Internet is absolutely crucial, and how that manages to occur in prison in a way that restricts and prohibits access from inappropriate websites, harassment and the like, is an issue that needs to be pursued in some detail. But if technology is the problem, technology is also the solution.

Now, in Arizona, that didn’t — the wires that detect cell phones coming into the prison, that didn’t work in Arizona where a woman managed to throw cell phones over the walls to two guys, three guys who escaped and killed a number of people after their escape, so technology isn’t quite up to snuff there.

But being trained how to live in an online world, there is a cultural side to technology that is not transmitted only in learning how to click the paper clip to attach your resume to an email, and that cultural side needs to be transmitted as well. And some of my students could get some of that, too, while we’re at it.

The digital divide is larger for offenders. Much of the digital divide literature shows that the gap has been closed between rural and urban; and black, white and Hispanic; and social class; and income; and age. But the digital divide still remains substantial for offenders and particularly individuals coming out of prison.

Word processing skills: It seems almost silly to be standing up in 2014 and say people ought to know a little more about word processing than they do. But clearly, a well-formatted resume, a detailed resume is important to have; proofreading, and again, that might apply to college juniors, sophomores as well.

Highlighting relevant job skills and experience, also critical. One of the things we’ve talked about with the employers and we talked about — the head of the Maricopa County Chamber of Commerce and I met to talk about this study and I’m going to go talk to the Chamber of Commerce — they’re not the group that’s probably going to embrace the findings, but the head of the Chamber of Commerce says they want to do better. And he said, “You know what helps us at entry levels is internships.” And of course, it helps our college students as well. Why can’t offenders do internships? Why can’t they get practice at jobs through the internship process, which is kind of an extended job interview if you think about it?

They need to have experience in interviewing, and the question they have to be able to answer is, “What did you go to prison for? What did you do while you were in prison? And what are you doing now that you’re out of prison?”

We drilled our auditors on those questions so that they could — they know the history of the Winslow Correctional Facility probably better than the warden does. They’ve got to be able to answer those questions, and if they stumble over them, then they probably lose a chance at coming back.

Shadd Maruna talks a lot about a re-entry script. Offenders need to have developed a re-entry script and one that they can come to believe and adopt as their own: “This is what I did in the past; I have moved beyond that.” We believe in redemption in this country. Steve Howe had how many different drug tests that he failed and still, of course, he could throw a curveball left-handed, and that’s an employable skill in this country, but we believe in redemption, and we believe in people getting second and sometimes third and fourth chances, and offenders need to develop a re-entry script that acknowledges their past, acknowledges their present, and plans to go on and stay out of trouble.

Even if they have doubts about that script initially, dress, tone, demeanor and body language are all important as well. And they have to be prepared for rejection. Look, 7.3 percent of our applicants got a callback. So the modal category for everybody, right, for the white women who had not been to prison, the highest callback category, even they get rejected 80 percent or more of the time. So you’ve got to be prepared to deal with rejection.

And Marilyn Moses pointed out a real interesting book about the experience of Mormon missions, and the Mormons go on missions and they knock on the door and they knock on thousands of doors, and the modal response is, bam, the door gets slammed and they don’t — so they learn to deal with rejection. And how do you learn to deal with rejection, because clearly, offenders are going to have to be prepared not to throw their hands in the air after two interviews and say, “The deck’s stacked against me, I’m never going to get a job.”

They have to be prepared for employers when they get to the I’ve-been-to-prison, to change their view of what a job applicant looks like, and they have to be prepared to counter that. Well, I am a hard worker. Well, I am turning my life around. Well, my next door neighbor is willing to vouch for me. And that vouching from an independent third party was something that employers told us was useful. It’s going to take time to get a job.

And employers told us time and time again, skills: “We want evidence of hard skills that people have worked in this sector in the past, that they can produce, because at the end of the day, I’m in business to make money, and if people who will help me make money have been to prison and they’re the best workers, so be it.” So certificates, diplomas — state of Ohio now gives a certificate if you’re crime-free for, I believe it’s 24 or 36 months, you get a card that certifies that you’re crime free. It also certifies that you’re an offender, and if you’ve been clear for 24 or 36 months, maybe you don’t need the card. But parallels between a job history and training and the current position are really important.

Preparing to work begins before release. If you don’t get out of prison with a driver’s license or a government-issued ID card, you’re going to have a hard time. Having your Social Security card ready to go — it’s not a credible job application if you don’t have your Social Security card with you — having a bank account, job history information. City of New Haven used to issue cards to immigrants who had not been documented, and it allowed them to cash a check; it allowed them to open a bank account. Offenders need to have some of the trappings of legitimacy, not just to be able to do functional things but also to present an appearance as legitimate.

They need to prepare for what’s expected at work. I can remember interviewing gang members at Greg Boyle’s in LA, and they said — “You know,” I said, “Are you looking for a job?” “Oh, yeah, but it’s got to be one of those jobs.” And I said, “Well, one of what kind of jobs?” He said, “Well, not one where the boss would yell at me or I’ve got to go in every day, and I’m not going to wait two weeks to be paid.” Well, there’s a guy who’s not ready to go on a job interview. So preparing individuals before they go out will reduce the chance of failure, but maybe more importantly, reduce the chance that we get a level of disappointment that offenders say, “huh, the whole world is stacked against me,” and maybe a lot of it is.

Taking direction from management and coworkers: “Yeah, I’m not going to have one of those jobs where somebody tells me what to do. I’m still looking.”

Who do you know is really, really important. References from prior employment, and of course, if you’ve been off the street for three or four years in prison, those are a little harder to come by: former employers, parole officers, social service providers, all individuals who can vouch, who can speak to social capital. Some will be capable of reconnecting in a virtual way. LinkedIn is another one of them that’s out there. I don’t think offenders are going to find many jobs through LinkedIn, but I think they may begin to learn some of the skills and the technology that goes, that’s associated with employment, occupations, and professions. They may be testing grounds for re-establishing noncriminal interpersonal relationships, kind of finding people they grew up with who are not in trouble who they can connect with.

The Ban the Box movement: A number of corporations are taking the box off, have you ever been convicted of a felony? That’s certainly successful lawsuits. Some employers — Target has taken steps on their own. It certainly could increase the number of opportunities, but also reduce that anxiety and that notion — the world’s stacked against me.

For those of you who want to take a quick look on the Web, the Safer Foundation has the concept of being job ready. You’re not job ready if you don’t have a Social Security card. You’re not job ready if you don’t have a resume and an email account. You’re not job ready if you don’t have a bank account. You’re not job ready if you haven’t practiced interviewing and ready for disappointment. And Safer does a real good job, out of Chicago, in preparing people for interviews.

The Chamber of Commerce has not been actively or aggressively working in the hiring of ex-offenders, and one might imagine why that’s the case given their constituencies. But they were very helpful and they’re going to participate in an ex-offender employment fair in Maricopa County. The gentleman I met with said, “Gee, nobody’s ever called us before, and maybe we need to call some of these people who, and groups that seem like unlikely partners.” Certainly limiting employer liability for the hiring of ex-offenders would go a long way as well.

Individuals who apply need to be realistic. You know, applying for a job is a full-time job with no paycheck. And I think that’s an important concept to grasp, not just for the ex-offender but also for the individuals who are trying to help them get out and get jobs. Ex-offenders shouldn’t be sent to jobs they’re not qualified for. They’ve had a mountain of disappointment already. They’re competing against applicants who don’t have a criminal record. Employers often set a higher bar for ex-offenders that’s difficult to rise to.

The head of HR at my university, who was opposed to us doing this study because we were going to ask for pictures and we were going to hire based on illegal criteria, said, “This is a really good project, though. This is a really important thing to do.” And I said, “So how many ex-offenders have we hired here at ASU in the last year?” And she said, “Well, you know, we have a lot of sensitive jobs and we deal with personnel.” And I said, “Yep, that’s what they do at the restaurant down on the corner as well, and we want them to hire these individuals.” And then, those are the, in case someone asks the question about the characteristics of the individuals in the sample.

So this has been three-and-a-half years of many things we never expected at the start. The employer survey was added, and I think it’s added a substantial amount of information and knowledge in terms of the policy and programmatic side of responding to this. This is going to continue to be a challenge, given our high rates of continued imprisonment and release from prison, and given the struggle we’ve had in knocking unemployment rates back down to pre-recession levels, finding jobs for ex-offenders is going to continue to be a challenge. But I hope we’ve advanced things a little bit, thanks to the support of the NIJ and a big team of people back at Arizona State who have worked really hard to make this project work. And I would take questions at this time?


ANGELYN C. FRAZER: Good morning. Thank you so much for the presentation. My name is Angelyn Frazer, and I work for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. And I’m the project director of the Task Force on the Restoration of Rights and Status After Conviction, so this is very timely for us. Our report will be coming out this year. We have done research around the country on this very issue, and I have four questions but I’ll only ask two and I’ll send you the other two in an email.

Did you have a re-entry script for individuals exonerated or those who were incarcerated for a crime that they claim they didn’t commit? And then the second question is language was a big deal for us in terms of how people self-identify, and the use of ex-offender, ex-con, we, you know, it’s in the report only because that’s how some people just stated it, but I’m curious to know how the language manifested in your particular project.

DECKER: Sure. Thank you for the questions and for the research question for the next grant application to NIJ in which we could go to employers and ask about individuals who had been exonerated and whether employers were willing to accept that exoneration, and if it left any sort of a mark. Again, remember, all of these people were made up; none of these are real people, at least in their identity. And we wanted employers to know that they were ex-offenders; we didn’t want any ambiguity at all because what we were really trying to do, of course, is the difference between somebody who’s been to prison and somebody who hasn’t been to prison. So we wanted employers to make sure they knew that half of these people had indeed been to prison, and to detect any bias against them.

Now, on the policy side, when they go out and apply, how they’re presented and how their re-entry script depicts them at the current moment I think is an important — you know, I was an ex-drug seller, right? I mean, that isn’t likely to go too far with many employers. Employers told us they understood individuals made mistakes, and so, but that they were willing to change.

So the admission of some wrongdoing, though the label I think need not be so pejorative as ex-offender or ex-assault-with-a-gun person. “I was an ex-offender, and now I’ve changed,” I think is probably an appropriate step, but we’ll be looking for your report and I will respond to your emails.

SUZANNE AGHA: Hi, I’m Suzie Agha. I’m a researcher at the Vera Institute, and we’re doing some work on post, the effects of postsecondary education for folks who are in prison, and I didn’t hear you say much about the community college effects. I’m wondering if you can tell us a bit about that.

DECKER: Sure, thank you. There were no effects for community college. Zero. And so, we reran it several times because we expected that to produce differences within the noncriminal individuals as well, when you would compare black men, black women who had been to college, or within the black men who had no offense, who hadn’t been convicted, half of them would have college and half of them wouldn’t, no differences.

We think this is largely linked to the fact that these are entry-level jobs, and when we asked the employers about what their view of having the community college was, those who expressed a view in the majority said, “We don’t want somebody with community college degree, because they’re upwardly mobile and they’ll find a better job, and they just want to get six months of work experience and then I’ll lose them.” And my response to employers was, “What’s your turnover? What’s your six-month turnover rate anyway in the back of a restaurant, the bussers and the dishwashers and the cooks and the like?” Well, they turn over pretty quickly already, but we did not find a community college effect. We were surprised.

AGHA: One more quick question: Were there any differences by type of job — because you said these were service jobs, food service, that kind of thing — were there any variation there?

DECKER: Right. There was not. We compared variation across person and job type, and we didn’t find any job-type variation. The women did as well on the landscaping jobs as the men did.

NAZGOL GHANDNOOSH: Hi. My name is Nazgol Ghandnoosh. I’m with the Sentencing Project, and I wanted to ask you about the chart that you had about the, with the audit results for men. So I wanted to focus on this chart because it focuses — it deals with men, and this is the overwhelming majority of the population that’s affected here. And what you see here is, is this, not the correspondence one but the audit —

DECKER: This is the online with 3,100.

GHANDNOOSH: Oh, yeah, uh-huh. So —

DECKER: This is the in-person, yes.

GHANDNOOSH: — yeah, so in this one, you see that white men are very much affected whether they have a criminal record, and that that effect really diminishes for black and Hispanic men. And this has been used to argue that what might be happening for black and Hispanic men, when other researchers have found these results, is that there is a presumption that even the black and Hispanic men that aren’t reporting a criminal record, employers might be assuming that they — they’re likely to have them. And so, there is this discrimination that happens that reduces the disparity that you see there. So given that, what do you think about, you know, do you think that that’s a possibility to explain why there is less of a difference for black and Hispanic men? And what does that mean in terms of the broader policy implications? So with Ban the Box campaigns or even with EOC’s attempts to litigate this issue or issue guidelines to prevent employers from learning about criminal backgrounds, would it mean that there would be this greater level of discrimination that black and Hispanic men would experience because the employers would assume that they’re more likely to have records?

DECKER: Very good question, indeed. Race matters more than imprisonment is, I think, a consistent finding across almost all the studies whether audit or correspondence, kind of a summary finding from Pager’s work and a bunch of other work. So Ban the Box probably is a good idea, but that darn Internet thing, many convictions are available on the Internet.

In work on another project, we’re tracking men and women who participated in a delinquency prevention project in the late 1950s, early 1960s, and most of you all probably already know this — I was a little surprised — it’s about three clicks away to get your Social Security number online. There are two ways to do it. One is there’s a set of mathematical algorithms that if we know your birth year and where you were born, we can get to within four or five, and the other is websites that have SSNs out there on them, and I found mine both ways, much to my chagrin.

And if we can find somebody’s Social Security number online, and we can a lot of the time, being able to find that they have a criminal conviction or an arrest record is something that we were able to find in many states given public records now. So eliminating the box doesn’t prevent an employer from finding out that someone’s got multiple arrests or whether they resulted in conviction or not.

Our sheriff in our county, among other things, reports individuals booked into jail with their picture on a daily basis. So finding that information out for employers isn’t particularly difficult.

I wouldn’t want to be held to it, but I would suspect that the more difficult change will not be the within-race prison/no-prison change; it will be the between-race difference between whites and the other ethnic groups. And that’s one we’ve been at work on for over 100 years in this country, and not made a lot of progress in a lot of venues, and I would say employment is one of those.

ZEPHYR FRASER: Hi, my name is Zephyr Fraser, and I’m a grant program specialist with the Bureau of Justice Assistance. And I was just noticing that there were no Asian population in this study. Was there any particular reason why they were not, and is there a study going to be conducted with the Asian population included?

DECKER: There was not, nor Native American, and if there’s a place in the country where Native Americans are in sufficient numbers statistically, Arizona is probably one of those places where it could be done. The two reasons for Asians are one, they represent such a very minute portion of the prison population, and number two, there, well, no, three, they’re not growing at the same rate as the percent Hispanic and African American, and their employment prospects are quite a bit more positive than African American or Hispanic, so we didn’t include them, and low base rate in the population.

And I should point out, speaking of low base rates, African Americans represent a very small percent, about 2 percent, I believe, of the state population in Arizona, and about 5 or 6 of the city of Phoenix, so demographically, it’s a very different part of the country than D.C. or the East Coast, for example.

DAVID BUTENAS: Hi. My name is David Butenas. I am a re-entry advisor and employment counselor with the Offender Aid and Restoration in Arlington. My question is, in your conversations with employers, did you get any sense that there was an awareness of the EOC’s guidance regarding the illegality of discrimination based purely on a criminal record or conviction record, or did, or the opposite, there wasn’t any awareness, it didn’t come up in conversations?

DECKER: It’s our sense from talking to owners versus managers that owners are aware of such things, and many of the managers — remember, many of the people who did these interviews were making sexually inappropriate comments to our female auditors, over-the-top inappropriate comments. So the, I don’t want to call them the niceties of EEO rules, but the requirements, I would say, many hiring officers, if they’re aware of them, they don’t pay much attention to them.

JOSEPH HEAPS: Hi, Scott. I’m Joe Heaps. I’m here at NIJ. I appreciate your time today. You mentioned — you had made a comment about cell phones getting into the correctional, institutional corrections, and you made a comment that the technologies aren’t up to snuff. And I want to make sure I know which ones you’re talking about because I think we see two different things: we see, one, contraband getting in, and then, once your cell phone gets into an offender’s hands, then you making that device unusable. So I wanted to ask if there was a specific technology or is it just across the board, because some of the issues we think may be policy related, and correctional officers bringing in those kinds of things.

DECKER: Yeah, this is the now somewhat infamous case in Arizona at one of the correctional facilities about a year-and-a-half ago. The wife of an inmate who had made a visit had a cell phone and threw it over the wall. And then, that was the means by which her husband and two individuals coordinated their escape, and that escape led to three murders, I believe.

And the department, Arizona Department of Corrections has done a case study of it, and I believe that case study is online at their website. And if you can’t find it easily, please email me, and Chuck Ryan is the Director of Corrections and sits on one of my boards, and he would be happy to respond. He knows many more of the details. But the cable that’s buried at the perimeter of the prison had been breached at one part of the prison and the inmates knew that, so she was able to toss the phone.

When we talk about technology, throwing a phone over a wall is hardly a grand technological leap, but it unfortunately did the trick.

RIDGEWAY: All right, one more, time for one more question.

MICHAEL J. DUBOSE: Michael DuBose with Community Oriented Correctional Health Services. I was wondering if there were any distinctions made in perceptions of employers for people coming out of jails as opposed to prisons.

DECKER: We did ask the difference between jail and prison, and for the employers, and this was an employer survey as opposed to actual test, was no different than prison, which is really bad news.

Date Created: February 1, 2014