New Research from UMass Amherst Sociologist Finds Ex-Felons in the Military Are Promoted Faster, to Higher Ranks than Other Enlistees

Jennifer Lundquist
Jennifer Lundquist

AMHERST, Mass. – A new study co-authored by University of Massachusetts Amherst sociologist Jennifer Lundquist reports that ex-felons enlisted in the United States military are promoted more quickly and to higher ranks—and are no more likely to attrite due to poor performance—than other enlistees.

The study, which followed 1.3 million ex-offenders and non-offenders who enlisted in the military between 2002-09, represents one of the first efforts to provide a large-scale systemic evaluation of ex-offenders in the workplace. Lundquist, a professor of sociology and associate dean of research and faculty development for the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at UMass Amherst, was lead author on the report. Devah Pager, professor of sociology and public policy at Harvard University, and Eiko Strader, assistant professor of public policy and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at George Washington University and recent doctoral recipient from UMass Amherst, co-authored the article.

To gather their sample set, Lundquist and her colleagues used Freedom of Information Act-requested data from the Department of Defense. Analyzing the data, they found that while on a number of dimensions ex-felons performed as well as or better than their counterparts with no criminal records, some outcomes did appear less favorable for felon enlistees.

One of the more striking positive findings was the more pronounced promotion success for enlistees with felony waivers, who are 32 percent more likely to be promoted to the rank of sergeant than similar enlistees with no felony history.

However, the researchers also found a slight increase in the percentage of ex-felons discharged for committing a legal offense in the military system—6.6 percent, as opposed to 5 percent of non-felons. They also found that enlistees with serious criminal records have a higher risk of death in the military, at an average hazard that is 80 percent higher than non-felons. Based on occupational data it appears that this may be attributed to a disproportionate likelihood of ex-felons being assigned to high-risk occupations that have significant combat exposure, rather than ex-felons exhibiting riskier behavior overall.

The researchers believe that this study could lead to a change in attitudes among private sector employers regarding the hiring of ex-felons.

“The assumption that a criminal record signals an undesirable employee is widespread, and guides the hiring behavior of many U.S. employers,” they write. “More than 70 percent of businesses conduct background checks, and the majority report that they would be unwilling to hire an individual convicted of a serious criminal offense. Employers report concerns over ex-offenders lacking character, work ethic, ability or some combination thereof.”

“The military is the only large-scale employer that has accommodated the hiring of ex-felons in significant numbers. This program tends to be expanded during years of high demand, such as during the first four or five years of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, while today there is very low demand for recruits,” Lundquist explains. “Moreover, it carefully measures and documents their performance over time. While generalizability to the civilian labor force remains an open question, these data allow us to assess the important question of ex-offender work performance across a wide range of occupations and with multiple dimensions of performance. We hope that future research and data collection will extend this analysis to the few civilian contexts that regularly hire ex-felons to test whether our results are replicated in nonmilitary contexts.”

 “Overall, our study shows that the military’s criminal history screening process can result in successful employment outcomes for ex-felons, at least in terms of job mobility and reliability, to the mutual benefit of employer and employee. An important question arising from this analysis is whether the military’s ‘whole person’ review can apply successfully to the civilian sector,” the authors conclude.

The complete study, “Does a Criminal Past Predict Worker Performance? Evidence from One of America’s Largest Employers,” will appear in the March issue of the journal Social Forces, and is currently available online here.