STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Next we report on the drive to help people with criminal records find jobs. Many states and local jurisdictions have passed what are called ban the box laws. The laws say if you're an employer you can't have an application that has a box you're supposed to check about whether you have a criminal history. New social science research explores the effects of those laws. And NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam is here to talk about it. Hi, Shankar.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: I guess the idea is to avoid discrimination, right? You're not supposed to even ask, if you're an employer, if somebody has a criminal history.
VEDANTAM: That's right. So many employers simply will not call you for an interview if you check a box saying that you have a criminal history. This has big effects on ex-felons and disproportionately affects African-American men and other people of color. I was talking to Amanda Agan. She's a post-doctoral researcher at Princeton University. She told me that more than 100 jurisdictions in 23 states have passed laws preventing public agencies from asking about criminal history. And nine states and several cities have passed laws preventing private companies from asking about this information.
Now, companies can still ask about criminal history, just not up front. The idea is once a company has met an applicant and likes the person, they'll be less inclined to reject the person simply because they have a criminal background.
AMANDA AGAN: The laws will tell the employers at what point in the hiring process they can actually ask about criminal history or do a criminal background check. And the idea is to really help applicants get their foot in the door with employers.
INSKEEP: OK. So the idea is give me a chance to come in and make my case and eventually I'll tell you about my criminal history. So how effective are those laws?
VEDANTAM: Well, Agan and her co-author, Sonja Starr of the University of Michigan, recently ran an experiment, Steve. They sent out 15,000 fictitious applications to companies in New Jersey and New York City before and after those areas passed these ban the box laws. The only difference between the applications is that some had stereotypically white names like Scott and Cody (ph). Others had stereotypically black names like Torrell (ph) or Darnell (ph). Now, given that one important purpose of ban the box laws was to reduce racial disparities in hiring, what Agan found was very surprising.
AGAN: The racial gap in callbacks by employers actually increased. White applicants were significantly more likely than black applicants to be called back. And that gap was larger than it was before the policy went into effect.
INSKEEP: Whoa, why would the disparity or the discrimination get worse?
VEDANTAM: Well, when companies were not allowed to check on the criminal histories of applicants, what they did is they fell back on their stereotypes and basically said black men are more likely to be associated with crime. So let me just reject black applicants more often or let me call white applicants more often. The net result is that white applicants as a group were advantaged. At companies that used to ask applicants about criminal history and now had to stop because of the new law, the racial gap in callbacks before the law was 7 percent. After the laws, it went up to 45 percent.
AGAN: To the extent that we want to use this policy to reduce racial inequality in hiring, it's definitely not effective.
INSKEEP: Wow. So the idea was to protect black convicts from having to say they're convicts up front, but in reality, it's preventing people without criminal records to announce that they're crime free.
VEDANTAM: I suppose that's right, Steve. You could argue, I suppose, that white ex-felons are benefiting from the fact that their group is perceived to be less likely to be felons. And blacks who are not felons are unfortunately perceived to be felons because of perceptions about black people and criminality.
INSKEEP: Shankar, thanks very much.
VEDANTAM: Thanks, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam, also host of the podcast that explores the unseen patterns in human behavior, Hidden Brain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.