The Effect of Changing Employers' Access to Criminal Histories on Ex-Offenders' Labor Market Outcomes: Evidence from the 2010–2012 Massachusetts CORI Reform
How to best reintegrate large numbers of ex-offenders into civil society is an important challenge for U.S. public policy. In 2006, the Department of Justice estimated that over 30 percent of the U.S. adult population has some type of criminal record; the percentages are even higher for some minority groups. Having a criminal record can impose lasting costs, particularly for anyone seeking job, as gaining legal employment is usually the best chance an ex-offender has to effect a positive change in his or her life. In an effort to reduce some of barriers to employment that may arise from having a criminal record, some states and localities have adopted a policy widely known as ban the box, which prohibits employers from asking about an individual's criminal history on an initial job application. In November 2010, Massachusetts implemented a version of ban the box as the first step in reforming its laws governing Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI). The second step, effective in May 2012, changed who can access the state's CORI database, enacted limits on the information that can be obtained, and imposed a time limit regarding how long misdemeanor and felony convictions will be reported on standard employer requests. On the whole, the Massachusetts CORI Reform is widely regarded as a national model to help improve ex-offenders' labor market outcomes. This study uses a unique and confidential large dataset and rigorous econometric techniques to test how well the intended reforms have worked in practice. The results may help guide and improve upon similar reform efforts in other states.
- The study's main result is that the CORI Reform has had the opposite effect on ex-offender employment rates from what the legislation anticipated would occur. After Massachusetts enacted its ban the box policy, the average employment rate of individuals with a CORI record declined by 2.6 percentage points when compared to the average employment rate of individuals who do not have a CORI record. Likewise, the record-access reform lowered average employment rates among ex-offenders whose records became inaccessible compared to ex-offenders whose record accessibility did not change, albeit by a smaller magnitude of about 0.46 percentage points.
- The ban the box policy has an increasingly negative effect on ex-offender employment rates over time, increasing from –1 percentage point in the first quarter of the policy reform to –3.8 percentage points six quarters (1.5 years) after the reform. The record-access reform similarly has an increasingly negative effect on ex-offender employment rates over time, growing from 0.4 percentage points in the first quarter the policy was enacted to –1.2 percentage points 14 quarters (3.5 years) after the reform.
- Across many industries, ban the box is more likely to have a negative effect on ex-offender employment rather than a positive effect. Relative to those without a CORI record, after the reform ex-offenders experienced job losses in 15 industries and hiring increases in only three industries. The two industries that experienced the largest number of job losses—administrative and support services and food services and drinking places—were the two industries that employed the most ex-offenders prior to the ban the box reform.
- The record-access reform also lowers employment among affected ex-offenders in more industries than the number of industries in which the reform raises employment. Relative to ex-offenders whose record accessibility did not change, after the reform ex-offenders whose records became inaccessible experienced job losses in 10 industries and hiring increases in only five industries. The industry that experienced the largest number of job losses—food services and drinking places—was the industry that employed the most ex-offenders prior to the record-access reform.
- There is mixed evidence on how the CORI Reform affected ex-offenders' earnings: the ban the box reform lowered ex-offenders' quarterly earnings by about $300; however, the record-access reform increased average quarterly earnings by $90. Given data limitations, however, these earnings results are merely suggestive, not conclusive.
- This paper suggests that the negative employment effect resulting from the CORI Reform may be due more to a labor supply response rather than a labor demand response.
Since the Massachusetts CORI Reform, and similar reform efforts in other states, sought to mitigate barriers to employment, more policy changes are needed to better support efforts to ease the lasting effects that a criminal record may have on an individual's labor market outcomes. More research needs to occur, ideally with data on individual hourly wages, data over longer time periods, and data covering a range of macroeconomic conditions.
Many regard the 2010–2012 Massachusetts Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) Reform as a national model to improve ex-offenders' labor market outcomes. This reform prohibits most employers from inquiring about an individual's criminal history on the initial job application (the "ban the box" reform), and reduces employers' access to an applicant's criminal record (the record-access reform). Using the CORI Reform as a natural experiment and a unique large confidential dataset linking individuals' CORI records with their unemployment insurance quarterly wage records, we examine the impact of changing employers' access to applicants' criminal histories on ex-offenders' labor market outcomes. We find that contrary to the intended goal, the CORI Reform has a small negative effect on ex- offenders' employment that grows over time, with mixed effects on earnings and industry composition. Suggestive evidence shows that the negative employment effect is more likely to result from a labor supply response rather than a labor demand response to the policy changes.