The Mark of a Criminal Record

Pager, Devah
Working paper no. 2002-05


Over the past three decades, the number of prison inmates has increased by more than 500 percent, leaving the United States the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world. With over 2 million individuals currently incarcerated, and over half a million prisoners released each year, the large and growing numbers of men being processed through the criminal justice system raises important questions about the consequences of this massive institutional intervention. This paper focuses on the consequences of incarceration for the employment outcomes of black and white job seekers. In the present study, I adopt an experimental audit approach to formally test the degree to which a criminal record affects subsequent employment opportunities. By using matched pairs of individuals to apply for real entry-level jobs, it becomes possible to directly measure the extent to which a criminal record-in the absence of other disqualifying characteristics-serves as a barrier to employment among equally qualified applicants. I find that a criminal record is associated with a 50 percent reduction in employment opportunities for whites and a 64 percent reduction for blacks. These findings reveal an important, and much under-recognized, mechanism of stratification. A criminal record presents a major barrier to employment, with important implications for racial disparities.