Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Do exonerees face employment discrimination similar to actual offenders?

Do exonerees face employment discrimination similar to actual offenders? Jeff Kukucka, Heather K. Applegarth, Abby L. Mello. Legal and Criminological Psychology, November 6 2019.

Purpose: Given that criminal offenders face employment discrimination (Ahmed & Lang, 2017, IZA Journal of Labor Policy, 6) and wrongly convicted individuals are stereotyped similarly to offenders (Clow & Leach, 2015, Legal and Criminological Psychology, 20, 147), we tested the hypothesis that exonerees – despite their innocence – face employment discrimination comparable to actual offenders.

Methods: Experienced hiring professionals (N = 82) evaluated a job application that was identical apart from the applicant's criminal history (i.e., offender, exoneree, or none).

Results: As predicted, professionals formed more negative impressions of both the exoneree and offender – but unexpectedly, they stereotyped exonerees and offenders somewhat differently. Compared to the control applicant, professionals desired to contact more of the exoneree's references, and they offered the exoneree a lower wage.

Conclusions: Paradoxically, exonerees may be worse off than offenders to the extent that exonerees also face employment discrimination but have access to fewer resources. As the exoneree population continues to grow, research can and should inform policies and legislation in ways that will facilitate exonerees’ reintegration.


Our findings suggest that exonerees–despite their innocence–may face hiringdiscrimination similar to actual offenders. Compared to an applicant with no criminalhistory, hiring professionals formed less favourable impressions of exoneree and offenderapplicants, desired to contact more of the exoneree’s references, and were more likely tooffer the exoneree a low wage–all despite their applications being otherwise identical.Notably, the observed effects were consistent in magnitude with those seen in meta-analyses of race-based (Quillian, Pager, Hexel, & MidtbĂžen, 2017) and gender-based(Koch, D’Mello, & Sackett, 2015) hiring discrimination. For offenders, employment is animportant predictor of post-release adjustment (Bahr, Harris, Fisher, & Armstrong, 2010;Uggen, Wakefield, & Western, 2005), including lower recidivism. Similarly for exonerees,studies have found a positive relationship between employment and mental health(Wildemanet al., 2011) and a negative relationship between financial compensation andpost-release criminality (Mandery, Shlosberg, West, & Callaghan, 2013). Our findings thuscarry potentially broad implications for exonerees’ post-release well-being.

Like Clow and Leach (2015), we found that hiring professionals negatively stereotypedboth offenders and exonerees–but we also unexpectedly found some evidence that theywere stereotyped differently. While both were seen as less trustworthy than the controlapplicant, exonerees were generally seen as intellectually deficient (i.e., less intelligent,competent, and articulate), whereas offenders were generally seen asmotivationallydeficient (i.e., less conscientious and responsible). If that is the case, then discrimination against these populations may depend on the requirements of the job in question. In our study, applicants sought a job that required both intellect and leadership, which may have made exonerees and offenders equally undesirable candidates. Still, this finding is rather tentative; future research should more carefully explore the possibility that these populations are stereotyped differently and therefore face discrimination under different circumstances.

The tendency to stereotype exonerees as unintelligent suggests that professionals may have attributed the exoneree’s conviction to dispositional rather than situational factors (Gilbert & Malone, 1995; Ross, 1977). Just world theory–which posits that people have afundamental need to view the world as fair (Hafer & B egue, 2005; Lerner & Miller, 1978)–may shed light on why exonerees would be blamed for their own plight: When faced withinjustice, people preserve their belief in a just worldby blaming the victim. In turn, peopleare less helpful to those who appear responsible for their own plight (Farwell & Weiner,2000; Weiner, Perry, & Magnusson, 1988)–and indeed, recent work has found that blaming exonerees for their own conviction predicted lower support for post-exoneration services (Kukucka & Evelo, 2019; Scherr, Normile, & Putney, 2018). This literature may thus explain why professionals stereotyped exonerees as unintelligent and why they more often offered exonerees a low wage. Perhaps educating employers about thesystemic causes of wrongful conviction would reduce discrimination against exonerees. Consistent with this possibility, Ricciardelli and Clow (2012) found that students’attitudes towards exonerees became more positive after hearing a lecture on the causes ofwrongful conviction.

Our professionals also wanted to contact more of the exoneree’s references, and they were equally likely to cite criminal history as a negative quality of the exoneree andoffender. These findings may indicate that professionals doubted the exoneree’s innocence. Qualitative studies abound with examples of exonerees who the publicpresumed guilty even after their exoneration (Scott, 2010; Westervelt & Cook, 2010), andother findings suggest that laypeople are often unconvinced of exonerees’ innocence(Scherr, Normile, & Sarmiento, 2018). If our professionals felt similarly, then it isunsurprising that they were equally apprehensive about the exoneree’s and offender’scriminal history. Alternatively, professionals may have accepted the exoneree’sinnocence but feared that incarceration had tainted them. This possibility is consistentwith research on stigma by association as well as the ‘magical law of contagion’–that is,the belief that people take on the properties of others with whom they have contact (e.g.,Rozin & Royzman, 2001). In other words, people may believe that exonerees take on thesame traits as the offenders with whom they cohabitated in prison (Clowet al., 2012). Future research should explore whether exonerees are stigmatized because they are mistakenly thought to be offenders or because they are known to have cohabitated with offenders.

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