III. Incarceration Stigma, Race, and Labor Market Exclusion

While some studies find that the effect of conviction on wages varies across the life course with little to no negative effect on the job market performance or wage potential of young offenders, researchers who have addressed racial disparities in their analysis find that incarceration interrupts the long-term process of transition into stable employment and earnings growth more significantly for African American men than other groups. Research from sociologists Bruce Western and Becky Pettit finds that incarceration factors prominently in low labor force participation and wage rates of African American men when compared to their white counterparts. Further, racial disparities in the criminal justice system amplify already existing racial gaps in earnings. For example, a separate study by Western estimates that the black-white earnings gap among men aged thirty or younger could be reduced by as much as 6% if African Americans and whites were incarcerated at an equal rate.

Employment exclusion is also high on the list of costs associated with former incarceration. Several professions--such as those requiring interaction with children, certain health care services, real estate, and most law enforcement and security professions--are subject to state and federal guidelines that restrict employment opportunities for ex-inmates with felony convictions. For jobseekers holding certain kinds of criminal records, federal laws also restrict employment in airport security, armored car crews, and jobs involving the administration of employee benefit plans. The Legal Action Center produced a report card of state policies and laws creating legal barriers to individuals with criminal records in 2004, and followed up in 2009. The study found that most states have laws that restrict the employment and occupational licensing opportunities (including professions such as plumbing and cosmetology) of individuals who have criminal records--including arrests that did not lead to convictions. Employers also limit the range of labor market options for ex-inmates. Citing concerns of safety, trust, and legal liability, employers are less likely to hire job seekers with criminal records than other groups of disadvantaged workers.

Race also factors prominently in employers' decisions to hire ex-inmates. Employers in many low wage occupations read gaps in employment history as signs of unreported spells of incarceration for African American men. This practice has led economists to recommend the use of criminal background checks as a means of correcting incarceration stigma, which is primarily directed at young African American men. In fact, one study found that employers who initially reported strong aversions to hiring ex-inmates were more likely to hire African Americans if they used criminal background checks.

Some argue that African American men's disproportionate rate of incarceration signals to employers a greater likelihood of informal or formal affiliation with criminogenic peers and the reduced likelihood of attachment to legitimate employment. As a result of this affiliation, employers are less likely to trust the quality of network-based information about African American job candidates. Such employers generally consider African Americans to have fewer valuable or exchangeable resources and question the accuracy of positive evaluations about African Americans as highly productive workers.

Other researchers find that employer preferences for ex-inmates may vary by job type. In a study of human resource managers in Los Angeles, for example, researchers found that employers are more likely to hire job candidates who have criminal records if the job requires limited contact with customers. Other evidence indicates that this process of selection also varies by race. In particular, one study illustrated that when employers offered African Americans jobs, they were more likely to steer the job candidate into lower level positions that featured less public contact and lower wages. This practice of steering was common for African American candidates whether or not they had criminal records.

Some of the most current and well-cited research on employer evaluations of ex-inmates involves audit studies, where matched pairs of African American and white male testers with ex-inmate and non-inmate credentials are trained and sent out to apply for jobs. This research indicates that while incarceration carries a heavy mark for all former inmates, the stigma of a criminal record is harsher for African American job seekers. Audit studies of employers in Milwaukee, where matched pairs of African American and white male job applicants with and without criminal records for drug possession applied for 350 advertised entry-level jobs, found that ex-inmates received significantly fewer job offers than non-inmates. However, this pattern differed significantly by race, regardless of former incarceration status. The callback rate was 17% for whites with a criminal record and 34% for those without. Among African Americans, the callback rate was 5% for those with a criminal record and only 14% for those without. These statistics warrant repeating: African American males with no criminal records received callbacks 20% less often than whites with no criminal records, and 3% less often than whites with actual criminal records. Similar hiring patterns were found in a duplicate study of employment in New York City.

As sociologist Devah Pager states, in terms of one's chances of finding a job, being black in America today confers just about the same disadvantage as having a felony conviction. The two strikes of race and incarceration act as an intensification of stigma and amount to an almost complete grounds for exclusion from labor markets for African American men. The conflation of race and incarceration stigma is lamented in the following statement made by an African American minister:

Felony is the new N-word. They don't have to call you a nigger anymore. The just say you're a felon. In every ghetto you see alarming numbers of young men with felony convictions. Once you have that felony stamp, your hope for employment, for any kind of integration into society, it begins to fade out. Today's lynching is a felony charge. Today's lynching is incarceration.

In summary, race and incarceration status are operationalized as mutually reinforcing sources of racial disadvantage for African American men. While white and Hispanic ex-inmates are also penalized economically and socially by incarceration, the employer data suggests that their racial status seems to give them some labor market advantages over African American ex-inmates. Moreover, the racial status of white ex-inmates appears to give them some labor market advantages over African American men who have never been incarcerated. Finally, above and beyond any ideas about potential for criminality, incarceration stigma is disproportionately directed at African American men.