It is commendable when an employer decides to take a chance and give somebody with a prison record a second chance.

But employers who don't feel comfortable doing this should not be prevented by government from asking a job applicant about his or her record.

They have every right to factor in a criminal record in deciding whom to ask to become part of their company.

But juristictions across the country have tried to circumvent this right by "banning the box"–a reference to the box job applicants with a criminal record had to check in the past.

As is often the case when government intervenes in the worklace, the results don't look so good.

The American Interest magazine says that the "banned the box" campaign is joining the "pantheon of alliterative social justice slogans that sound straightforward and appealing but become far more complex under scrutiny."

The magazine quotes from a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research:

[The goal of banning the box] is to improve employment outcomes for those with criminal records, with a secondary goal of reducing racial disparities in employment.

However, removing information about job applicants' criminal histories could lead employers who don't want to hire ex-offenders to try to guess who the ex-offenders are, and avoid interviewing them. In particular, employers might avoid interviewing young, low-skilled, black and Hispanic men when criminal records are not observable.

This would worsen employment outcomes for these already-disadvantaged groups. In this paper, we use variation in the details and timing of state and local BTB policies to test BTB's effects on employment for various demographic groups. We find that BTB policies decrease the probability of being employed by 3.4 percentage points (5.1%) for young, low-skilled black men, and by 2.3 percentage points (2.9%) for young, low-skilled Hispanic men.

These findings support the hypothesis that when an applicant's criminal history is unavailable, employers statistically discriminate against demographic groups that are likely to have a criminal record.

By trying to deny businesses the ability to judge the quality of their applicants according to their own lights, these juristictions are hurting both the innocent and those who have records but, if honest, might be able to make a good impression and persuade somebody to give them a second chance.

The American Interest observes:

The pull of movements like BTB is understandable. All of us want to believe that deeply-rooted social problems can be resolved at the stroke of the pen—especially if they can be captured by a catchphrase that rolls off the tongue. But it’s usually not that simple, and this study points to the perils of policymaking by sloganeering rather than a deliberate weighing of the evidence.