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‘Ban the box’: a major milepost on a long road

In May Gov. Mark Dayton signed “Ban the box” legislation, requiring private employers to wait until someone is selected for an interview before asking about criminal records.

A map from the National Emplyoment Law Project shows which states have adopted 'ban the box' legislation.
National Employment Law Project

You may know that on May 13 Gov. Mark Dayton signed “Ban the box” legislation, requiring private employers in Minnesota to wait until someone is selected for an interview before asking about criminal records. But you may not know the history of this change or why it is a major milepost in the road to restoration: a road not only for people with criminal records seeking employment, but for us as a society.

haase photo
Mark Haase

Over the last several decades, the number of Minnesotans throughout the state with some type of a criminal record has increased to an estimated 1 million, or one in five. Some estimates put it even higher. Our state has the eighth highest percentage in the nation of its citizens incarcerated or currently on some type of supervision — in 1982 it was one in 98, today it is one in 26.

With new and easier access to these records through electronic databases, many Minnesotans are turned away from employment for which they are qualified even though their record may be unrelated to the job, from long ago, or even inaccurate; oftentimes a job denial may be simply based on an applicant’s answer to a confusing question about criminal records on the initial employment application.

On top of this are the high racial disparities in Minnesota’s criminal justice system, combined with racial disparities in other areas of opportunity that make the impact of these records particularly devastating for African-American, Latino, and Native American job-seekers.

Hawaii led the way

“Ban the box” is just one policy solution to this problem, although an important and game-changing one. The first known implementation of it occurred in Hawaii. In 1998, Hawaii required all employers, public and private, to wait until a conditional offer of employment has been made before doing a criminal background check. It did so seemingly before the idea was even on the radar of advocacy groups or jurisdictions in the rest of the country.

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Around 2004 “ban the box” seems to have become a movement, although it is not clear exactly who got it started. Boston may have been the first city to implement it in 2005, supported by a broad community coalition called Massachusetts Alliance to Reform CORI (Criminal Offender Records Information system, the state database for criminal records). In 2006 in California a group called “All of Us or None” successfully advocated for it for public employers in San Francisco, and according to its website takes credit for coining the phrase “ban the box” as part of a campaign beginning in 2004. [Much of this paragraph relies upon the National Employment Law Project’s  guide to the adoption of ban the box by cities and counties, which can be found here.]  

Here in Minnesota, the Council on Crime and Justice successfully advocated for Minneapolis and St. Paul to ban the box around the same time. The council had focused on the impact of criminal records on employment, with a particular emphasis on the disparate impact of criminal records on nonwhite communities demonstrated in our Racial Disparities Initiative research from 2002-2007. The Minneapolis Foundation was a primary funder of the council’s advocacy work on these issues from the beginning, and has continued to be a consistent supporter.

As of 2008, a number of cities had adopted ban the box for public employers, including Austin, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, Newark, Oakland, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Minnesota was the first to expand the ban statewide by introducing legislation to require all public employers throughout the state to ban the box, which was signed into law by Gov. Tim Pawlenty in 2009, along with legislation to limit the liability of employers who hire people with criminal records. The Council on Crime and Justice  spearheaded this effort at the Capitol, and was joined by other organizations that had come together with the council a couple of years earlier to form the Minnesota Second Chance Coalition.

50+ organizations joined together

The Second Chance Coalition is a group of more than 50 organizations that have joined together to advocate for fair and responsible laws, policies and practices that allow those who have committed crimes to redeem themselves, fully support themselves and their families, and contribute to their communities to their full potential. The experience of Minneapolis and St. Paul after several years of banning the box was also critical to the success of the bill. 

Minnesota was quickly followed by statewide public-employer ban-the-box statutes in New Mexico and Connecticut.

In 2010, Massachusetts passed the first law that applies to private employers; here in Minnesota we began working on that in 2011. The measure was strongly opposed by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. Council and Minnesota Second Chance Coalition representatives worked to gain support with state and local chambers of commerce and other business groups and employers. Legislation was introduced with bipartisan support in 2010 and 2011, but was stalled in the committee process.

In 2013 legislation was reintroduced, again with strong bipartisan support. As it moved forward, the Chamber of Commerce withdrew its opposition and began working with advocates; the bill soon included administrative fines as enforcement rather than attorney’s fees in civil cases. The St. Paul Chamber of Commerce, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman and the Minnesota Catholic Conference wrote letters in support of the bill — which received bipartisan votes of 107-26 in the House and 44-16 in the Senate. The chief authors were Sen. Bobby Joe Champion of Minneapolis and Rep. Tim Mahoney of St. Paul.

The law will become effective Jan. 1, 2014, making Minnesota the third state to expand ban the box to private employers.

For job-seekers, a tremendous leap forward

It may seem like a small step, simply requiring employers to wait just a little longer in the hiring process before asking about criminal history. However, for those Minnesotans who will have the opportunity to put their best foot forward and stand on merit and qualifications, it’s a tremendous leap forward. And it’s not just the new employee who will benefit.

Employers will have access to a better applicant pool and with diverse, qualified and motivated employees. And from a policy and paradigm-changing perspective, this law represents leaps and bounds forward in the movement for second chances.

The bipartisan support and business-association support is a major change in the policy dynamics. It will pave the way for similar reforms in other states and other reforms that give people a second chance. It is also a significant shift in how we as a society view people with criminal records. Rather than discount them outright, we should and must evaluate their ability to contribute where they are at now and on a case-by-case basis. We hope it will begin to lift the greatest obstacle of all for second chances: the stigma associated with criminal records. This is not just a change in employment policies and practices, but also a change in how we view and treat each other.

However, it is just a milepost and by no means the end of the road; there is much more work to do in many different areas as well as access to employment. We hope the public will continue helping us to pass more mileposts along the road to restoration.

Mark Haase is vice president of the Council on Crime and Justice. This commentary is adapted from an article in the council’s July Minnesota Justice Monthly newsletter.


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