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There’s a small, innocuous box at the bottom of most generic application forms. Most employers don’t specifically request them to be there, or pay them much mind at all when the filled-out forms are returned without the small black “x” at the bottom. But when the box is checked, they always take notice.

Employers skimming the application might note the applicable job experience and relevant skills, and even mentally earmark this applicant for an interview – until they reach the bottom and find that innocuous box checked. In a knee-jerk reaction, they toss the hopeful application into the bin and reach for the next candidate.

The neatly-typed line of text next to the checked box reads: I have been convicted of a felony and/or misdemeanor.

This  hypothetical employer’s automatic response could, and often does, prove to be a life sentence of unemployment to free men and women across the country. According to statistics from a poll conducted in a joint effort by The New York Times, CBS News, and the Kaiser Family Foundation, about 35% of all unemployed men aged 25-54 have criminal records. Suffice to say, that number constitutes a significant chunk of the workforce – and it appears that bias against previously-incarcerated men may be at the heart of their inability to find employment.

For better or worse, background checks are a necessary part of the hiring process. No shop wants a thief for a clerk, or an embezzler for it’s bookkeeper. Moreover, the wealth of online information makes researching potential candidates online nearly a given. But for those who have committed minor crimes, such as public intoxication, or vandalizing public property, one night of bad decisions can easily turn into a lifetime of unemployment.

A study run by Harvard sociologist Deva Pager revealed that men who self-disclosed criminal records were about 50% less likely to receive a job offer or callback than those without – and that for men of color, the statistics were even more grim.

This negative bias has far-reaching and, frankly, worrying repercussions. Former inmates who only want to return to work and contribute to their community can find themselves in a downward spiral of debt, unable to dig themselves out from under the weight of that checked box. As their productive job options dwindle and they find themselves facing homelessness, hunger, and debt, they may see no other option than to return to their crimes in order to care for themselves and their families. Current numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics report that inmates who leave state prisons have a five-year recidivism rate of 76.6%.

This number is unacceptable. Not only does the negative bias against those convicted of minor crimes have the potential to negatively impact lives, but the tendency towards recidivism and the high numbers of unemployed ex-inmates harms the economy, given that able workers are turned away from potential jobs because of a vague “x” on their applications.

Employers need to curtail that knee-jerk reaction to a criminal background, and at least consider the hopeful’s qualifications before tossing an application in the bin. The “x” at the bottom of the page is painfully vague, and doesn’t separate out those who made a single bad call from those with major crimes. The employer must overcome their automatic negative bias, and give otherwise-qualified candidates the opportunity to explain their situations.  

If employers across the country begin rethinking how they vet candidates and begin giving former inmates a chance, the country might be able to lower recidivism rates and make steps towards recovering from our current high unemployment rates.