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'Ban the box' legislation would limit when job seekers have to reveal criminal past

Sen. Bobby Joe Champion
MinnPost file photo by James Nord
Sen. Bobby Joe Champion’s bill, which passed the Senate on a bipartisan vote, would expand that requirement to most private employers in the state.

Many Minnesota businesses would start following the public sector in “banning the box” inquiring about criminal history on job applications if a bill passed Saturday by the Senate becomes state law.

The city of Minneapolis and then the state have removed the question from consideration of public applicants until the interview — or later in the hiring process.

Sen. Bobby Joe Champion’s bill, which passed the Senate on a bipartisan vote, would expand that requirement to most private employers in the state.

“Ban the box” would keep most employers from asking on job applications whether the person has ever been arrested or convicted of a crime, Champion said after the successful vote.

“Usually, it just says ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ and then when individuals mark ‘yes,’ what traditionally happens is what? They throw the application away.”

The Minneapolis DFL lawmaker has worked with the Second Chance Coalition, a group working for criminal justice policy reform, on the measure. He told lawmakers that his “ban the box” bill could affect as many as one in five Minnesotans.

He argued that businesses should consider applicants based on their skills and qualifications, not simply on their past. That mindset reflects a change in policy that appears to be gaining steam nationwide.

Champion did stress, though, that there are a few exceptions, including applicants working in nursing homes and other firms that provide services to vulnerable people or perform sensitive work.

Proponents of “ban the box” policies have noted that one of the best ways to re-integrate former criminals into society is through employment.

Lawmakers, both Democrat and Republican, praised the measure.

Minneapolis enacted the measure in 2006, and lawmakers passed a public statewide version for the entire state in 2009. If passed this session, Second Chance Coalition co-chair Mark Haase said Minnesota would be the first state to pass “ban the box” legislation without major concessions to business.

More than 40 cities and counties and seven states have passed similar legislation, according to the California-based group Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. Haase said when Massachusetts passed a “ban the box” law in 2010, businesses gained access to a previously restricted state criminal records database.

He said the coalition attempted to pass similar legislation last year but ran into trouble because of Chamber of Commerce opposition. The Chamber dropped its opposition after supporters moved away from civil lawsuit remedies to administratives fines for businesses who didn't adhere to the law.

“Once the Chamber became not opposed, it made things quite a bit easier,” he said after the Senate vote.

Champion said he expects the measure to pass in the House, too, with bipartisan support, similar to the Senate’s 44-to-16 vote. It has bipartisan co-authors in the House.

But opponents of the measure questioned whether it would be an unnecessary burden on Minnesota businesses.

GOP Sen. Dan Hall, part of a group of Republicans who opposed the measure, attempted to tack on a failed amendment that would have added a 10-year timeframe before applicants would be able to take advantage of the loosened restrictions.

GOP Sen. Julianne Ortman called it “feel-good legislation” that would simply create “a new government program.”

“It really doesn’t accomplish anything except to put brand-new regulations on Minnesota businesses,” she said.

Sen. Scott Dibble, a Democrat from Minneapolis, said every lawmaker knows someone that this bill would affect. Dibble said he has a very qualified friend who made a mistake in the past and can’t find a job.

Some even suggested taking a harder look at Minnesota's expungement and criminal records guidelines as a further step to help job seekers.

Champion acknowledged that some viewed the "ban the box" bill as an incremental victory, but he called it “a giant leap” forward.

“This is a first step. It is not a do-nothing bill,” Dibble said. It will make a significant difference in people’s lives.”

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Comments (3)

Practical measures

This does seem incremental, as many companies have rigid corporate policies on hiring people with criminal records. Though this is a good step, what it appears to practically do is create a lot of work for recruiters and HR managers, who will be interviewing people they may not be able to hire, regardless of their qualifications. It doesn't matter how qualified a person is if their employment remains contingent on passing a criminal background check.

What would be the most practical measure the legislature could address is employer liability for employees with criminal pasts. If, for example, a person previously convicted of theft works at your company and steals, did you assume the liability by hiring them? It's not always clear in statute or case law.

Race discrimination in arrest, imprisonment

In this context we need to be talking about the heavily disproportionate number of people of color who are arrested, and as a consequence, a heavily disproportionate number who are sent to prison.

I can't summon the data for you, so take this as anecdotal, but former prisoners who are not reintegrated into society, especially through employment, are much more likely to reoffend than those who are able to find employment. Do we intend to encourage more crime, or reduce it?

I see this as a reasonable step to, in some measure, overcome the racial discrimination that sullies our criminal justice system, and reduce recidivism.

Leaves Door open for Racial Profiling

Many employer believe they have the right to know as much about prospective employees as possible. Since the question cannot be asked ob the initial application, I believe employers will simply discard applications with more "ethnic" sounding names. You cannot legislate morality. I answer questions for ex-offenders and felons looking for jobs at my blog: http://jailtojob.com/wordpress