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New research highlights discrimination against people with criminal records in labour market

Dr Marti Rovira explains his findings

Consequences of Criminal Records in the UK 

My article begins by shedding light on the current situation in the United Kingdom, where nearly 12 million individuals possess a criminal record. Collecting criminal record data is common practice in the UK. In 2021, 7.6 million criminal record certificates were requested and 3 million of these certificates were for roles that do not legally require a check. Recent analysis by Unlock of Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) data provides more evidence of an upward trend. The number of informal requests for criminal record information (not involving a DBS check but commonplace on application forms) are also likely to be much higher than this, though harder to evidence.  

I then highlight the detrimental effects of discrimination against individuals with criminal records. This discrimination is seen as unfair because it imposes ‘collateral consequences’ on individuals that extend beyond intentions of the initial sentence, it is ineffective because it hampers societal efforts to support people with criminal records in moving on, and it is counterproductive as employment is linked to lower rates of reconviction. 

However, despite the societal importance of reintegration and rehabilitation, people with convictions continue to face high levels of unemployment. Government figures indicated that only around 26.5% of prisoners in England and Wales found employment after release, and approximately 60% of those under Community Payback Orders in Scotland are unemployed. 

The Emergence of ‘Ban the Box’ Policies 

In response to these challenges, British charities have called for the implementation of ‘Ban the Box’ policies, which aim to discourage employers from asking about criminal records during the initial stages of the recruitment process. By postponing the inquiry about criminal history to later stages of recruitment, employers may be encouraged to make more individualised assessments, taking into account a candidate’s qualifications and skills before their criminal record. This also serves to highlight the fact that a criminal record should not be used as a ‘make or break’ factor in a recruitment process. 

However, research from the United States has demonstrated that the impact of ‘Ban the Box’ policies can vary depending on the candidate’s race. While these policies have shown promise in improving the job prospects for white candidates with criminal records, they have been found to decrease opportunities for people from racialised communities without criminal records, particularly black individuals. 

A Groundbreaking Field Experiment 

To address the complexity of this issue and provide empirical evidence, I conducted a groundbreaking audit field experiment involving over 2,000 job applications. The experiment involved two fictitious candidates, both equally qualified on average, with the only difference being that one had a criminal record while the other did not. I used the difference in invitations to progress to the next stage of the recruitment process between these two groups to measure discrimination against individuals with a criminal record. This is the first field experiment of its kind in the UK and the largest in Europe. 

The Key Findings 

The results of this study offer crucial insights into the challenges faced by individuals with criminal records in the British labour market: 

  • Individuals with criminal records in the UK have a lower chance of success in the initial stages of the recruitment process compared to candidates with equivalent skills and job experience. 
  • The study highlights that ‘Ban the Box’ policies may benefit white candidates. White Candidates with criminal records are less likely to progress to the next stage of recruitment only if the application had a direct question about criminal records. This suggests that discouraging these questions during the initial stages of recruitment could improve the chances of white individuals with criminal records securing interviews and employment. 
  • ‘Ban The Box’ policies should be accompanied by specific policies to support candidates from racialised communities. I found that black candidates disclosing a training course during imprisonment or probation in their CV faced discrimination in applications that did not ask about criminal records. However, I did not detect discrimination against black applicants with criminal records in applications for which a direct question about criminal records was asked. Therefore, ‘Ban the Box’ policies could have no effect on these applicants or even be detrimental. Therefore, specific policies should be taken to avoid discrimination against individuals with criminal records from racialised communities. 

Implications and Conclusions 

In conclusion, this study contributes to sociological debates surrounding the impact of the criminal justice system on social inequalities. It provides concrete evidence of the intersection between the stigma of a criminal record and ethnicity in the UK, emphasising the need for policies that promote fair employment opportunities for all, regardless of their past. The research offers a path forward to reducing the obstacles that can limit the opportunities available to people with criminal records, making our communities more inclusive and just. 

This research brings attention to the enduring consequences of contact with the criminal justice system, especially for people from racialised communities. It provides clear and convincing evidence of the interaction between the stigma of a criminal record and ethnicity in the context of collateral effects of sentencing in the UK. 

Read the full findings

Written by:

Dr Marti Rovira is  Tenure-Track Assistant Professor & Maria Zambrano Fellow in the Department of Political and Social Sciences, Pompeu Fabra University (Barcelona).


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