Prisoner Reentry

A study of criminal record questions on job applications

Sarah Esther Lageson
Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice, Rutgers University

Key Findings

  • Among the 78% of employers who ask about criminal records, the specificity of questions vary depending on the severity and timing of the offense.
  • The number of applications with questions about criminal history vary by industry.
  • The restaurant industry is the least likely to ask for criminal history in applications.
  • When applicants are given the opportunity to signal not having a criminal record, there are reduced disparities in employer callbacks due to race.


In the article, Criminal Record Questions in the Era of ‘Ban the Box,’” Lageson and her co-authors attempt to discover what employers ask regarding criminal records on job applications, what characteristics employers associated with individuals based on the severity of the crimes, and do applicants without criminal records (particularly African Americans) fare better or worse if the decline to answer a criminal record question. To conduct their study, the researchers randomly selected 605 entry-level job applications in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and completed two fictitious applications for each. The two applicants were the same race pairs but one did not have a criminal history and the other had a low-level offense. The results showed that of the employers who asked for criminal history, the question wording and content varied based on the severity of the offense. The data showed even more variability and ambiguity in question wording in applications asking about lesser offenses. The researchers also found differences in criminal history questions among different industries. Finally, the researchers found that if applicants have the opportunity to decline answering questions about criminal history, the race gap in employer callbacks decreases.

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