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Study: Ex-Cons Face Race Barriers in Job Search


I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead: all about estate planning with our Money Coach, Alvin Hall. Yes, you do need to know about this.

But first, we've been following the case of Troy Davis. He is the Georgia man who had been convicted of killing a local law enforcement officer. Several witnesses later recanted their testimony. He had been within hours of execution.

Late last week, the Georgia Supreme Court agreed to hear Davis's request for a new trial. And yesterday, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles - which had issued a 90-day stay of execution on July 16th - decided to suspend any further consideration of the death sentence until the high court finishes its review.

TELL ME MORE will monitor events as they develop in this case.

This week, our program is examining several issues in criminal justice. The National Institute of Justice Conference met here in Washington recently, and that gave us a chance to meet and talk to some of the people thinking about new ideas in crime and justice.

Today, we want to take a look at how inmates fare once they reenter society and look for work. The research shows that a criminal record can severely limit opportunities, especially for people of color.

With us to talk about this is Devah Pager. She is an associate professor of sociology at Princeton University. She has a forthcoming book on the issue titled "Marked: Race, Crime and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration."

Also with us is Glenn Martin. He is co-director of the National H.I.R.E. Network - a group that helps ex-offenders find work. Welcome to you both.

Mr. GLENN MARTIN (Co-director, National, H.I.R.E. Network): Thank you. Welcome.

Ms. DEVAH PAGER (Associate Professor, Sociology, Princeton University): Thanks very much.

MARTIN: Devah, I'm sure it doesn't surprise anybody that it would be hard to find a job with a criminal record. But what I think is surprising is the way race plays an even larger impact than I think some people might expect. So, first of all, tell me about how you constructed the study and how you figured out what impact race plays.

Ms. PAGER: This is a large scale experiment that we conducted in which we hired young men to pose as job applicants and sent them all over New York City applying for entry level jobs to see how their race and their criminal background affected their chances of getting hired. These were men that we carefully selected and matched on the basis of their age, their race, their physical appearance, their general style of self presentation, and then we assigned them fictitious matched resumes that demonstrated identical levels of education and work experience. So these were comparable candidates in all respect, and differed only in their race and their criminal background.

MARTIN: So you didn't have, like, one guy with the marine cut and another guy with dreads and one guy wearing a hoodie and another guy wearing a business suit. You tried…

Prof. PAGER: That's right.

MARTIN: …to make sure that it was an equivalent, and one guy with the master's degree, one, you know, with a no D. Okay. So what did you find?

Prof. PAGER: So there were three main findings from this study. One, as you said, not surprisingly, a criminal record had a major impact on their hiring prospects. Those with a criminal background were anywhere between 25 and 50 percent less likely to get a callback or a job offer from employers.

The second finding related simply to racial discrimination that remains pervasive in this low wage labor markets. Blacks were about half as likely to receive a callback or a job offer as equally qualified whites. And blacks with no criminal background, actually, were no more likely to get a shot at a job relative to white men just released from prison.

MARTIN: So even if black and Hispanic applicant had no criminal background, a white applicant with a criminal background was on an equal footing?

Ms. PAGER: That's right, right. They were - it seemed like employers were basically indifferent between black and Latino applicants with no criminal background and whites just out of prison.

MARTIN: Glenn Martin, you were a project director for this study. What do you - as I understand it, you were also a former offender. Is that correct?

Mr. MARTIN: That's correct.

MARTIN: And so does this research reflect your own experience?

Mr. MARTIN: Absolutely. You know, I approach this work, obviously, based on the experience I had coming out of prison six and a half years ago in New York State and the different barriers to labor market that I faced, even being a person with a college degree.

But participating in a study, I opened my eyes to the widespread discrimination faced by these folks - not just based on the criminal record, but based on their race, and knowing that people of color are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system.

As the co-director of the H.I.R.E. Network had said to me, that we really needed to be bringing in a diverse set of stakeholders to address this particular issue, namely folks from the civil rights community and other folks who are doing human rights and race-focused work.

MARTIN: Devah, why would this be?

Prof. PAGER: When blacks and whites each presented evidence of a criminal record, the effect was much larger for blacks. So it certainly hurt the employment prospects of white applicants, but many employers seemed willing to be sympathetic or to overlook the conviction and to recognize that this was a good kid who just made a bad mistake.

And in the case of the black applicants who presented criminal backgrounds, they were less likely to be granted an interview, and they were less likely to be given the opportunity to demonstrate that, actually, they were not the stereotypical profile of a young black criminal, that they were actually articulate, bright, motivated young men who wanted to get beyond this mistake that they've made.

MARTIN: You said this took place in New York, so let's assume that some of the hiring managers are people of color in this scenario. Does the race of the hiring manager affect whether they're willing to give an ex-offender a chance?

Prof. PAGER: Yeah, it's a great question. And most of the employers and the managers were actually white, and so our findings generalized best to the typical hiring manager who is white. But there is some evidence that among African-American and Latino employers, we do see a greater willingness to be open to both minority and ex-offender applicants, and that their hiring prospects with minority managers did improve.

MARTIN: If you've just joined us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. As part of our criminal justice series, we're talking about how race complicates the search for work for many ex-offenders. And we're speaking with Glenn Martin of the National H.I.R.E. Network and with the Princeton University Professor Devah Pager.

Glenn, what about you? When you work with former prisoners in New York - and I would assume that many of them are black and Hispanic, just according to the same statistics that we see in sort of across the country - what have you found?

Mr. MARTIN: Well, we've definitely seen the difference. And if you look at the racial makeup of folks who are coming through our door, disproportionately, it is people of color. And, as for their own personal perceptions, I think a lot of it is more around the criminal record. They assume that it's the criminal record that's stopping them, and many times it is with the more than 80 percent of large employees doing commercial background checks. But I would also argue that race plays a huge role based on what we saw during the study.

MARTIN: It was interesting to me to note we're in such a security-conscious society right now, you know, that people would just be unwilling to - for liability reasons - just unwilling to give an ex-offender a chance. But you found it was almost as if the - there was an expectation for the black and Hispanic applicants who did not have a criminal record, that perhaps that they were tainted, you know, by their - you what I'm saying? So I'm just…

Prof. PAGER: Absolutely, yeah. So the first study of this kind that I conducted was in Milwaukee a few years ago. And there, I was incredibly surprised by the findings. I expected a criminal record to have a big effect, but I didn't expect race to swamp the findings in the way that they did.

And some critics of the study said, well, this is Milwaukee, and Milwaukee is an incredibly segregated city. It has a long history of racial antagonism. And if you conducted the study in a city like New York, you'd see very different effects. And so to replicate the study in New York, and to see that, basically, things look very similar reinforced the sense that this not a phenomenon that's limited to one particular metropolitan area.

MARTIN: We are in a society in which people are very conscious of liability questions. They would say, look, you know, if I hire an ex-offender and, you know, heaven forbid, he has anger management issues, you know, and, you know, punches out another employee, I'm going to be in trouble. So it's best not to take that chance. What do you say to people who have those concerns?

Prof. PAGER: It's not that I think that employers are irrational for taking these things into account. But employers today are overwhelmed with information that I think they find difficult to make sense of. So 30 years ago, when the criminal justice system was reserved for the most heinous kinds of offenders, you could know that having a felony conviction really meant something quite serious.

Today, the criminal justice system has expanded so massively in this unprecedented way, that we have brought into the system many first time and non-violent offenders whose criminal backgrounds, I think, pose much less of a risk in terms of predicting future kinds of behaviors. And yet for employers, all of this is grouped into the category of these criminal records, or these felony convictions. And so it's difficult for employers to figure out where is it that I'm seeing someone who's going to be risky for my workplace, and where is it - the kind of offense that I could effectively monitor and prevent against?

MARTIN: Glenn, a couple of questions for you. One is that I think you mentioned to one of our producers earlier that black and Latino hiring officials, that there is some difference in how they treat applicants. Is that right? Is that Latino hiring officials were more likely to give Latinos a break, whereas black were less likely to give other blacks a break?

Mr. MARTIN: I think, again, anecdotally, serving as a project manager and listening to the stories of the folks that we sent out into the field when they came back and told their stories, more often than not, the black tester rarely had that sort of encounter where a black interviewer was willing to sort of, you know, go out on a limb and offer an opportunity to him.

MARTIN: It's not empirical. It's anecdotal. But it's interesting to contemplate.

Prof. PAGER: I can comment on those results. So we did find that among Hispanic employers, you see a pretty strong in-group preference. So they were much more likely to hire the Latino applicant, relative to the other applicant types.

Among black employers we also see a more even treatment. They seem to discriminate, overall, less on the basis of race or criminal background.

MARTIN: Oh, interesting. Glenn, many people would say, sure, it makes sense that you'd have a tough time coming out of prison sort of finding a job. But if you could just - from your own experience, how important is it to get a job?

Mr. MARTIN: I think it's absolutely important. If you look at the recidivism numbers, recidivism rates, and 80 percent of people who re-offend or are re-arrested are unemployed at the time of re-arrest. And unlike any other population, just based on the stigma that we see in the Princeton study, we realized that more has to be done to address the stigma that these folks face. It's not like someone who needs to be trained to get a job.

I mean, some of these folks are very well trained and don't even get an opportunity to present themselves to the employer or tell the employer what sort of skills they bring to the table. And I think employers themselves have pretty much said that they - it has to incentivized for them to consider this population. Some of those incentives include federal bonding, tax credits, subsidies, and of course addressing the liability issue.

MARTIN: All right. Glenn Martin is the co-director for the National HIRE Network. He joined us from NPR's New York bureau. We were also joined by Devah Pager. She is an associate professor of sociology at Princeton University. She joined us from the studios on-campus there. For more on their study, you can access our Web site, Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. MARTIN: Thank you.

Prof. PAGER: Thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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