Criminal History and Employment-University of Maryland-DC Public Safety Radio

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[Audio Begins]

Len Sipes:  From the nation’s capital, this is DC Public Safety. I’m your host, Leonard Sipes. Ladies and gentlemen, today’s program is about employment and criminal history and we ask the basic question – at what point do people with arrests represent the same risks as the general population. This has profound impact,  profound policy implications for our society when you have an 18 year old and he’s arrested, but yet he goes 15 years and he’s not rearrested. He has no further contact with the Criminal Justice system. The question is should he be denied jobs? The other question is for people like we have, under parole and probation supervision, at what point do they become safe risks? They’re years away from their last crime in many cases. They’re years away from their last substance abuse positive test and at what point do they become safe risks for society and safe risks for people to employ them? I’m very proud today to have Kiminori Nakamura, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland College Park, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice. The web address is, and Professor Nakamura’s personal website I’ll have those listed in the show notes. With that introduction, Professor, welcome to DC Public Safety.

Professor Nakamura:  Thank you for having me.

Len Sipes:  Alright, I just want to read very briefly from the New York Times. You got a lot of press for a piece of research you did with Alfred Blumstein from Carnegie Mellon, an extraordinarily important piece of research that has reverberated throughout Criminology and Criminal Justice and has made mainstream media…I’m reading from a very recent opinion from the New York Times. The title was Paying a Price Long After the Crime.

“In 2010, the Chicago public schools declined to higher Darryl Langdon for a job as a boiler room engineer because he had been convicted of possessing a half a gram of cocaine in 1985, a felony for which he received probation. It didn’t matter that Mr. Landon, a single parent of two sons, had been clean since 1988 and hadn’t run into further trouble with the law. Only after The Chicago Tribune wrote about his case did the school system reverse its decision and offer him a job.”

It goes on to say that a stunning number of young people are arrested for this country and those crimes can continue to haunt them for the rest of their lives. Again, Professor Nakamura, University of Maryland, welcome back to DC Public Safety.

Professor Nakamura:  Thank you very much.

Len Sipes:  Okay, where are we with this whole research, Doctor? Can you explain what it is that you did, how you did it and what your research conclusions were?

Professor Nakamura:  Sure, let me start with a sort of background where this research came about. So we, me and Dr. Blumstein, recognized two observations, two trends that we see recently. One is that the criminal background checks have become very, very ubiquitous. According to one survey, about 80-90% of large employers now conduct background checks on potential employees and, largely, I think there are two reasons for the increase in criminal background checks use. One is that technology, the information technology, has made background checking very easy and you can do a lot of background checks even on line. The second in observation is that the criminal records themselves are very much widespread and prevalent. About 92 million criminal records are stored in the State’s Repository of Criminal Records and according to the FBI about 14 million arrests are made each year. So you can imagine the sheer number of people with criminal records.

Len Sipes: That’s 92 million total at the moment with every year adding another 14 million.

Professor Nakamura:  Possibly.

Len Sipes:  That’s amazing.

Professor Nakamura:  Of course, the same person can be arrested multiple times, but even considering that, it’s a huge number of people.

Len Sipes:  Well, with 80-90% of employees checking criminal histories and with those numbers of records there, it’s almost inevitable that a sizeable percentage of our population is going to turn up positive for a past criminal history.

Professor Nakamura:  That’s right and there’s another recent study saying that about one in third people in the United States acquire an arrest record by the age of 30.

Len Sipes:  That’s amazing.

Professor Nakamura:  Right. Again, that tells you that a very large number of people are having criminal records.

Len Sipes:  Well, we do say that, criminologically speaking, that involvement in crime reduces with age. So you can have a person involved in the Criminal Justice system at 16 or 17 or 18 or 19 or 20 and be completely crime free a certain amount of years later.

Professor Nakamura:  That’s correct and a lot of people have very old, single criminal record that had probably occurred when they were young, but still, those people still cannot get a job or get into public housing or getting other sort of social services because of that single, old criminal record.

Len Sipes:  My introduction to the Criminal Justice system when I was a teenager was being picked up by the police and they decided to take me home to my parents. I won’t embarrass everybody and myself in terms of what it is that I did, but they took me home to my parents. Now, if they had processed me through the regular Criminal Justice system, the question is would I be sitting here doing this radio show here today?

Professor Nakamura:  That could have been, yes, if they process you in official channels and you’ve got an arrest record and that arrest record could still potentially show up on criminal background checks.

Len Sipes:  It’s amazing. One-third of the American population having contact with the Criminal Justice system has immense implications. So give me a sense of the research you did with Alfred Blumstein. So you did how many people and it was in New York, correct?

Professor Nakamura:  That’s correct. So we basically got arrest history records, rap sheets, from New York State Criminal History Repository and we basically captured everyone who was arrested for the first time in the state of New York as adults in 1980. So we had about 88,000 people – data.

Len Sipes:  That’s a huge data set.

Professor Nakamura:  That’s correct and we basically followed up their criminal history for over 25 years. So if their first arrest in 1980, we followed them up until 2007 or so. So we can see their criminal risk history for over 25 years.

Len Sipes:  What was the conclusion that you came to in terms of following these people? Now, that’s a huge data set. I mean I’m used to criminological data sets of 500, 700, 1,000, 2,000. Eighty-eight thousand is a huge number of people. So you followed them up after a certain number of years and you found what?

Professor Nakamura:  So, first of all, we found that those who are…the recidivism risk, rearrest risk, of those who are arrested and, actually, we looked at those where people were convicted in 1980. Their rearrest risk declines over time, which suggests that the longer these people stay clean, stay out of crime, the lower the recidivism risk becomes.

Len Sipes:  Right, so its age of onset becomes an important marker within criminology, but age of leaving the Criminal Justice system becomes an equally important marker.

Professor Nakamura:  That’s right. So age is an important factor here. So if you acquire a criminal record when you are young, the recidivism tends to be higher than the counterparts, but the equally important factor here is the length of time clean. So if you stay clean longer, then your risk of being arrested again becomes much lower.

Len Sipes:  Okay, so are we talking about first time offenders, second time offenders, third time offenders? Are we talking about repeat offenders who at one point had a clean history, single offenders who at one point had a clean history or it didn’t matter?

Professor Nakamura:  We basically looked at first time offenders, first time arrestees as well as those who were first time convictees. So we didn’t really look at those people with multiple prior records, but there’s another research paper by researcher Shawn Bushway and others. That paper looks at recidivism risk of those with multiple prior records.

Len Sipes:  Did it show the same thing as your research?

Professor Nakamura:  The pattern is the same, meaning that the recidivism risk declines over time, but those with many prior records, their recidivism risk declines in a much slower place.

Len Sipes:  Ah, okay, so there’s more of a commitment if you have multiple crimes versus singular crimes.

Professor Nakamura:  Right. It takes a longer time.

Len Sipes:  Your research basically said that there’s a certain formula involved here that after…and it depends upon the crime and I think it depends on the age of onset, but I heard different people summarize your research by saying that after seven years of not offending, then your risk is just as the same as that of the regular population. Not the regular criminal population. I’m talking about the American population across the board.

Professor Nakamura:  Right, so in comparison to the general population, the recidivism risk of those who had a single arrest and conviction in 1980 becomes about the same as the general population’s risk of arrest after seven years or so.

Len Sipes:  Okay and then that did vary from crime to crime, correct?

Professor Nakamura:  That’s correct. The crime type of the first arrest and conviction matters to the number as well as the age at first arrest, when they were first arrested.

Len Sipes:  I’m reading from the report from the National Institute of Justice. For burglary, I think it was 3.8 years for robbery. It was 7.7 years…so it does depend upon the crime and it does depend, as you said, upon the age upon arrest.

Professor Nakamura:  That’s correct.

Len Sipes:  In essence, what we are saying here and from a policy implication is that for this particular group, because you were caught up in the Criminal Justice system at one point in your life does not mean that you should be viewed suspiciously by every employer who chooses to look at your criminal history. I mean before we started the show, I talked about a family member. I was at a family affair and a young family member, she was with her counterparts and they were looking at a smartphone. They were taking a look at a court database and this one young lady blurts out to everybody there, “Oh my heavens, you’ve been arrested.” I mean that was a matter of going on a smartphone and plugging in her name and plugging in her date of birth and she was able to find out about the fact that she was arrested. So this is, number one, it’s not unusual, it’s not difficult at all in many states to find out that you’ve been arrested. The second question is – so what? Okay, so because you were arrested at a certain point that means that – in the example that I gave from the New York Times – that means that you should be denied a job for the rest of your life?

Professor Nakamura:  So the problem was that employers, at least in the past, did not really distinguish how old these criminal records are. So if they see a criminal record on their background checks, no matter how old it is, they think that’s an indicator of risk so that they can basically decline or decide not to hire that individual, but what our research suggests is that employers should look at the age of that criminal record. If that criminal record is very old – longer than seven years, ten years – then that criminal record doesn’t have much relevance in predicting future crime.

Len Sipes:  That’s why there are people who will say that after a certain amount of years you should not be asked about your criminal history because it lacks relevance. If it’s been five years, seven years, ten years since the criminal activity and you’ve been clean since that point, there is no need for an employer to ask about that event.

Professor Nakamura:  Yes, but that threshold might be dependent on how the particular employer is risk sensitive. So if you’re talking about jobs at a construction site, they might not be all that concerned about the risk of crime or if the employment includes people working in teams, so there’s sort of like a natural supervision against each other, then they might not be all that concerned about people with criminal records, but if the job is about teachers or other positions that involves contact with the vulnerable populations, then the employer’s that have risk sensitivity is a little higher, so they might need to wait a little longer for someone with a criminal record to be hired by those risk sensitive employers.

Len Sipes:  We’re quickly halfway through the program. Kiminori Nakamura, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland College Park, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, and within the show notes, I’ll have the exact address for the good Professor’s website. Again, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice –, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice for the University of Maryland talking about something that has received a ton of publicity in mainstream media and an awful lot of discussion within criminological circles called Redemption in the Error of Widespread Criminal Background Checks put out by the National Institute of Justice of the Office of Justice Programs of the US Department of Justice.

Professor, if I could get back to what you said before that there has been an updated study that took a look at people with multiple offenses and the finding of that updated study is the fact that they also age out of crime, but they take a little bit longer to age out of crime.

Professor Nakamura:  That’s right. So that’s research by other researchers, other professors, but that paper suggests that if you have more than one, if you have more criminal records, you basically take a little longer to go down to the level of general population’s, let’s say, risk of arrest or sometimes the risk of people with no criminal record. So we can use different benchmarks, but regardless of the benchmark, if you have more records, prior records, it just takes a little longer.

Len Sipes:  Professor, do people come to you and say, “Give me a formula?” Say, ten years we shouldn’t be asking. Now, you just answered the question a little while ago. It depends upon the security needs of the individual. I would imagine if you deal with a lot of money, having someone convicted of fraud involving money, you’re going to look at that person suspiciously regardless as to when the crime occurred, but having said that, do people come to you and say, “Look, there’s a certain point when we’ve got to stop asking about criminal histories. It’s just not fair to the individual.” In some cases, you go 20-25 years carrying that burden with you for the rest of your life for an arrest for something minor that occurred decades ago. I mean is there a point when we should simply stop asking?

Professor Nakamura:  So our first suggestion is that we should remove – what we call – sort of ‘forever rules’. So we should avoid a blanket ban on hiring people with criminal records. That’s not really consistent with what our research indicates. So it does not make any sense for employers to have a sort of policy that says, “We don’t hire people with criminal records.” Going from there, we would usually say about 10-13 years, we should basically stop asking for criminal records regardless of age at first arrest or first conviction, regardless of risk sensitivity for most employers, although, there might be some exceptions.

Len Sipes:  So those are the two – a way to avoid a blanket ban and somewhere in the ballpark of 10-13 years – and that gives some guidance and at least it begins to ask the question in terms of the employment community, is there a time that the person should be – I don’t know – held harmless depending upon the security needs of the institution. Again, if you’re convicted of a sex offense, I’m not quite sure I’d want you to be hired for a daycare position even if it was 15-20 years in the past and there are people who will dispute that, but I understand the perspective of employers, but at least we say avoid a blanket ban across the board and look at 10-13 years as guidance.

Professor Nakamura:  That’s right and then another consideration for employers is that they might want to look at what kinds of crime are they mostly concerned about. Are they concerned about property crime, like fraud/embezzlement type or they’re mostly concerned about violent crime and depending on the concerns for particular crime types, they can basically differentiate what prior criminal records they should watch out for. For example, if the prior criminal record is something about the violence and you’re also concerned about violent crime at the workplace, then that criminal record should maybe indicate the higher level of risk for a longer period of time paired with prior record of some sort of property crime.

Len Sipes:  You seem to be saying take a look at the circumstances. Don’t just have a knee-jerk reaction that because you have an arrest, I’m not going to hire you. Take a look at the circumstances and apply the circumstances of that individual to the circumstances of you job.

Professor Nakamura:  That’s correct.

Len Sipes:  Okay, now, in terms of if I can make the big leap over to people currently under supervision. My agency has 16,000 offenders under our supervision on any given day, we know that there are hundreds of thousands of individuals on parole and probation supervision – I’m sorry – actually millions of people under parole and probation situation throughout the country. I know your research doesn’t go in that direction of people currently under supervision, but my experience and we have job developers who work with these individuals and they tell me that they have people three or four years away from their last criminal involvement and three or four years away from their last positive substance abuse check, drug test and that these are perfectly safe, perfectly skilled individuals. They have hard skills. They have been employed in the banking industry, for the love of heavens. I’ve talked to some people. They’ve been bricklayers. They’ve been electricians, but yet they can’t find jobs. At the same time, they are perfectly safe as far as a risk to public safety or a risk in terms of that employment environment. Do you have any comments on that, sir?

Professor Nakamura:  Yeah, so our research that we just talked about is mostly about this long-term outcome. So people who are just released from prison, they might be able to get a job that is probably not that risk sensitive and he can keep that job for maybe several years and when he wants to move up to a better paying job, that’s when this sort of idea of redemption becomes more relevant because he might be faced with a sort of blanket ban policy that many employers have. That’s when my research becomes a little more important. We always say 10-13 years or 15 years or whatever the number is, that number should not really interfere with the reentry support [INDISCERNIBLE] employment. People released from prison, they should get some sort of job as soon as possible because the research suggests having a job is related to redemption in recidivism.

Len Sipes:  Well, I guess that’s the point. The point is is that we, as an agency, all parole and probation agencies, our job is to reduce recidivism, reduce people going out and committing more crimes, reduce the number of victims. Part of that is through supervision, which is extraordinarily important, but part of that is through programs and finding jobs for these individuals and that job connection is really hampered. I’ve sat down with people under our supervision who are perfectly good risk, yet, employers will not touch them because of their criminal histories, but again, I guess the point I’m trying to make is there may be, based upon age because the average of the people we have under supervision is 31, that maybe there is a point or even people under supervision pose safe risks. I know your research didn’t go there, but is there the possibility that they pose safe risks?

Professor Nakamura:  That’s right, especially for, again, employers that are not that risk sensitive.

Len Sipes:  Where do we go to in terms of future research, Doctor, where do we go to in terms of taking this conversation two or three steps further in engaging the American public, engaging the criminological community with these issues that you and Professor Blumstein brought up in your research?

Professor Nakamura:  So we are kind of pursuing two streams of research. One is to look at this redemption idea for people that have been incarcerated. Like I said, in our previous research, we looked at those first time offenders, first time arrestees or those who have been convicted, but now, we’re kind of looking at the data of people who have been already incarcerated. So they probably have multiple prior records and see if their risks of recidivism declines to the level of general population or not. So that’s something that we are looking at right now.  The other strand of research that I’m pursuing is, like you said, looking at the population of people who are under parole supervision and right now, in most states and most jurisdictions, the length of parole is quite prefixed in the sense that when they are put on supervision, they know how long they have to be under that supervision. What I’m exploring is that if they stay clean under parole supervision, their recidivism also declines. So at some point, there can be discharge prior to sort of the maximum sentence date because their recidivism risk no longer poses a significant amount of risk or if the risk level is sufficiently low, then maybe the supervision level can be adjusted and then maybe these guys can be put on either administrative parole supervision or some low-intensity supervision.

Len Sipes:  Well, that would be a huge plus for those of us who run parole and probation agencies because then we can take those resources and redirect them towards the higher risk offender and even do a greater job in terms of protecting public safety.

Professor Nakamura:  That’s correct. Recidivism is at the highest when they’re released from prison. So it makes more sense for supervision agencies to focus on their resources, treatments or supervision resources on the earlier period of time after they’re released.

Len Sipes:  Well, I know, again, those of us in parole and probation agencies are really going to be looking forward to that research because that’s something we wrestle with right now. Do you have a projected date of delivery on that research or are we years away from the findings?

Professor Nakamura:  Well, I started working on that research topic with people from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections here, so we started to collect data and we’re about to analyze the data.

Len Sipes:  Ah, so you’re not that terribly far from the process of coming to some intermediate conclusions.

Professor Nakamura:  That’s correct.

Len Sipes:  Well, that would be a wonderful contribution to those of us…I mean for parole and probation administrators, that would be just an enormous piece of research because, again, everyone is struggling with that very question – because of the budget situation, who do you focus your resources on and who do you place on administrative probation or parole or a kiosk sort of program.

Professor Nakamura:  Yup, that’s exactly why we started this research on parole.

Len Sipes:  Well, I’m very proud to talk to you today, Dr. Nakamura. Your research, again, for the people listening to this program, it’s really very hard to describe the level of interest that people throughout the country…and it really has caught the attention of mainstream media because I’ve seen your research being referenced to dozens and dozens of times within mainstream media as well as in the criminological community. Dr. Nakamura, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland College Park, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, I’ll put his personal web page in the show notes. Ladies and gentlemen, this is DC Public Safety. We appreciate all of your comments. We appreciate your letters. We appreciate your emails and we appreciate your phone calls in terms of the program and comments and suggestions. Please have yourselves a very, very pleasant day.

[Audio Ends]