Making Background Checks Positive

Eamon Jubbawy

Making Background Checks Positive

In my previous blog post I discussed a number of different ways, in light of recent academic studies, in which we could start to think about background checking in more positive terms. In it, we showed how background checks can have a positive effect on hiring practices for members of ethnic minorities, and serve as a method for encouraging ‘good citizenship’.

In this post I would like to expand on how the use of background checks could still change to create a fairer labour market.

Firstly, it is clear that any improvements to the way we use background checks has to factor in rehabilitation to a greater degree. In my past post I cited this study from the National Institute of Justice Journal by Alfred Blumstein and Kiminori Nakamura, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in criminology and the urban environment. Entitled ‘Redemption’ in an Era of Widespread Criminal Background Checks’, and I would like to explore this study in greater depth.

The ‘Redemption’ study’s starting point is the recognition of two key points – firstly, that employers cannot reasonably be expected to hire ex-convicts who are likely to re-offend, and, secondly, that without suitable information or regulations, criminal records tend to create a permanently unemployed class of ex-convicts. The study therefore sets out to work out where the balance between these competing interests lies.

Blumstein and Nakamura achieve this simply by examining the statistics on recidivism to establish at what point after committing a crime the arrest rate for ex-offenders re-joins the national average – in other words, when they no longer pose a greater threat of criminality than anyone else.

In other words, individuals who committed burglary at the age of 18 returned to the arrest rate of the general population 3.8 after their arrest, close to the age of 22. For aggravated assault, that number is 4.3 years; for robbery, 7.7 years. Furthermore, this ‘hazard rate’ continues to trend downwards and away from the rate of the general population, eventually becoming close to the hazard rate of those who had never been arrested (although never quite meeting it). This information is useful to employers on its face: if statistics of this kind were widely available for every offence, employers could come to very well-informed views as to the risks involved in hiring an individual with a criminal record – it suggests how long an ex-convict has to remain ‘clean’ to become no more hazardous a prospect than the average person.

Moreover, more detailed analysis of the figures also strongly suggested that re-offending rates amongst young adults are strongly linked with age: individuals who were first arrested at the age of 20 rehabilitated almost twice as quickly as 16 year-olds and substantially faster than 18 year-olds. This strongly suggests that for many, criminal activity may be a phase associated with young adulthood, but also that those who start offending young have a harder time staying clean.
Information like this is invaluable to any employer attempting to make a fair evaluation of the employability of an individual with a criminal record, particularly in the United States, where there is no federal equivalent to the UK Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 which established the current regime of spent and unspent convictions.

Governments must work harder to make information about recidivism available in an easily digestible form to make it easier for employers to navigate the difficult waters of hiring individuals with a criminal past. Otherwise, past offenders will continue to re-offend, as this article makes clear.
If we are serious about rehabilitating offenders, the answer will be to give employers as much information as possible so that they can make the best hiring decisions. That is why background checks are positive – they enable hiring decisions to be made with the broadest possible range of information about the individual, so that employers do not use generalisations or pre-conceptions in their hiring process.

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