Potential for Redemption in Employment in an Era of Widespread Criminal Background Checks

Watch an interview with researchers Kiminori Nakamura and Alfred Blumstein.

It can be difficult for someone with a criminal record to find employment. More than 80 percent of U.S. employers perform criminal background checks on prospective employees.[1]

Researchers Al Blumstein and Kiminori Nakamura believe there is and that when that point is reached, a potential employer should no longer consider an ex-offender's record relevant. Why? Because at that point, an ex-offender is no longer more likely to commit a crime than other similar individuals of the same age in the general population.[2]

The concept of redemption or the expungement of a criminal record has important implications beyond employment. A redemption date or expungement of a criminal record may be relevant to other aspects of daily life, such as the ability to get public housing, receive certain public benefits, and obtain admission to and financial aid for college.

Blumstein and Nakamura's method for estimating when redemption occurs depends on two factors: the arrestee's age at the time of the first arrest and the type of crime committed. In their first study, based on an examination of 80,000 rap sheets for individuals first arrested in 1980 and after in New York, they found that, in general, the younger an offender was when he or she committed the first offense, the longer he or she had to stay "clean" to reach that redemption point.

The actuarial model created by Blumstein and Nakamura provides empirically based guidance for employers and others to help them determine the point at which a former offender poses no greater risk of recidivating than any other demographically similar person. At that point, Blumstein and Nakamura argue, the ex-offender's criminal history is no longer relevant.[3]

Results from the Redemption Follow-up Study

Blumstein and Nakamura's first study demonstrated that redemption time estimates could be calculated for former offenders. The question then was how accurate these estimates were.

The team engaged in a second study to test the estimates. This research effort involved analysis of New York data from two additional sampling years, 1985 and 1990. Rap sheets from two other states, Illinois and Florida, were added and analyzed from the same sampling years. The results confirmed that original redemption time estimates, based on the 1980 New York rap sheets, held and were reasonably accurate. Not only were the earlier results confirmed, but this effort permitted the researchers to build on the initial findings in other ways.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has issued guidance for employers on how to use criminal records to screen job applicants. Employers must demonstrate that a criminal record is "job related." This suggests that employers must understand whether the prior crime type is a meaningful indicator of the type of crime that is of most concern in the context of the job opening. Focusing particularly on violent and property crimes, often an employer's primary concern, this research provided empirical evidence that prior crime type is associated with recidivism type. This was particularly true for violent offenders, and the association was more prominent for older offenders. The association diminished as time since the prior offense increased. That is, a redemption estimate can be calculated based on the amount of time "clean" since the prior incident. These findings provide support for employers who, when making a hiring decision, must evaluate the likelihood that an applicant will commit a job-related offense.

Finally, researchers explored another aspect with policy relevance. Because of racial differences in arrest rates, employers' use of criminal background checks as a screening tool is of great concern to the EEOC. The arrest prevalence for blacks is more than four times higher than the arrest prevalence for whites. In contrast, the risk of rearrest for blacks is about twice the risk of rearrest for whites shortly after their first arrest. So the racial rearrest-risk ratio is about half the arrest-prevalence ratio. Thus, it is important that employers recognize that the arrest prevalence difference does not provide a meaningful estimate of risks posed by white and black applicants with a criminal record, and that, after a long period of time clean, their risks become similar.

About This Article

The work described in this article was supported by NIJ award 2007-IJ-CX-0041 to Carnegie Mellon University.

This article is based on the grantee report "Potential of Redemption in Criminal Background Checks" (pdf, 58 pages)" and "Extension of Current Estimates of Redemption Times: Robustness Testing, Out-of-State Arrests, and Racial Difference" (pdf, 114 pages) by by Alfred Blumstein and Kiminori Nakamura.


[note 1] Burke, M.E., 2004 Reference and Background Checking Survey Report: A Study by the Society for Human Resource Management, Alexandria, Va.: Society for Human Resource Management, 2006.

[note 2], [note 3] Blumstein, A. and K. Nakamura, "Potential of Redemption in Criminal Background Checks" (pdf, 58 pages), Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, November 2010, NCJ 232358.

July 26, 2011