Minnesota has been considered a leader in one specific criminal justice reform known as ‘ban the box.’
In 2009, it was just the second state in the nation to prohibit public employers from including a criminal history question on initial job application forms. Then, in 2013, private employers were added to the law, a provision enacted with bipartisan support.
But there is one type of job where an applicant still has to tell employers whether they have been convicted of a felony crime: appointment to boards and commissions in Minnesota state government, including prominent jobs like seats on the Metropolitan Council.
Whether that was an oversight or an intentional exception isn’t clear. But what has been clear is that since the outlier was identified by MinnPost in 2020, Gov. Tim Walz, Secretary of State Steve Simon and some legislators have promised to remedy it … and haven’t.
Now, the new Senate Majority Leader, Kari Dziedzic of Minneapolis, has pledged to make it a priority in 2023.
“We banned the box for corporations, we should ban the box for the government,” the DFLer said last week at a Minnesota Chamber of Commerce event while outlining top issues.
How we got here
Ban the box is a national campaign to give former offenders a chance to show their qualifications without being eliminated on page one, day one. An applicant’s criminal background can be asked about and discussed during an employment process. It just can no longer be on the initial application.
Minnesota’s version of the law has exemptions for positions that legally require some form of a background check, including jobs at the Department of Corrections.
Viewed as a criminal justice reform measure, it has been backed by powerful groups across the political spectrum, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the conservative billionaires Charles Koch and his brother, the late David Koch, who have used their wealth from Koch Industries to fund a network of libertarian and conservative campaigns and causes. They have also taken interest in criminal justice reform.
The argument in favor is that an applicant who at least gets a face-to-face interview has a better chance of making a good impression, something often denied to applicants who say on the initial application that they have a criminal background.
There has been some skepticism of the idea. Some in the GOP have pointed to research that suggests ban-the-box laws actually hurt employment chances for people of color because employers discriminate and assume minorities are more likely to break the law. There is also conflicting research however, and supporters of ban-the-box policy argue it’s wrong to avoid such laws out of fear an employer would illegally discriminate against applicants because of their race.
Either way, there is no legislative record that explains why lawmakers a decade ago thought an applicant for a job processing income taxes in Minnesota shouldn’t have to initially declare a felony conviction but an applicant to be on the Board of Cosmetology does.
While many of the state’s 251 boards and commissions are advisory or technical, the criminal background question also shows up on the application for boards that play significant roles in state government: the Public Utilities Commission, the Sentencing Guidelines Commission, the Police Officer Standards and Training Board and the Metropolitan Council.
Applications for boards and commissions are also public records. Ray Dehn, a former state lawmaker, answered that he had been convicted of a felony on an application to the PUC in 2019. (Dehn received a full pardon from the state in 1982 but has been public about his conviction.) Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey answered that he had not been convicted of a felony in an application for a climate council in 2019.
That information being public could dissuade people from applying in the first place, say supporters of ban-the-box policies.
The governor makes most of the appointments. The secretary of state administers the process of taking applications. In 2020, both expressed surprise and dismay that the provision still existed, yet neither requested legislation to change it.
Dziedzic and Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, introduced bills in 2020 and 2021 that would offer ban-the-box protections to such applicants. But it did not become law. Dziedzic was not majority leader at the time since DFLers did not control the Senate.
What Dziedzic said
In an interview, Dziedzic said she had previously been under the impression that the state had banned the felony disclosure question for applicants to state boards and commissions. But after the 2013 law passed for private employers, she noticed after a friend asked for help applying to one of the state board jobs.
“I opened the application,” Dziedzic said, “and I said, ‘Why is this here? I thought we banned it?” Dziedzic said. She then called the state’s Human Rights Commission, who told her “actually we kind of missed it” in the earlier law change.
“So we need to fix it,” Dziedzic said.
Dziedzic said the latest bill could move quickly, though lawmakers are juggling priorities and time on the Senate floor. She said Sen. Clare Omou Verbeten, DFL-St. Paul, will carry the legislation in the Senate.
“I know we’ve been talking about it,” said Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, who pushed for ban-the-box for private employers in 2013. “I know fixing some of the ban-the-box issues have been recognized as important. There are always things you can look back on and see what you can do to strengthen a piece of policy that benefits Minnesotans.”
Dziedzic said she believes there haven’t been any complaints with the process for other government jobs and for private businesses. “This is common sense, and it’s something we should do and we will do,” she said.