Opening doors by closing the box

For years, people who served time for a crime they committed have had difficulty finding steady employment that enables them to reenter society as productive contributors. One of the main ways that a person’s criminal record has continued to limit life chances has been the box used, literally or figuratively, in the job-application process whereby an applicant has been compelled to disclose whether he or she has a criminal background.

Relying on an employment applicant’s criminal history to make hiring decisions has been problematic for several reasons. First, it assumes that past mistakes indicate future conduct. Second, given the racial disparities at every step of the criminal justice process – as cogently analyzed by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In The Age Of Colorblindness – use of the criminal background box can have a racially discriminatory effect regarding the access to good jobs and related opportunities.

Notably, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission – the agency charged by Congress with interpreting and enforcing Federal employment and civil rights laws – recently issued Enforcement Guidance based on the conclusion that using criminal history as a means of screening out employment applicants can amount to discrimination and, therefore, should be done carefully – if done at all. More recently, in the last legislative session, the Minnesota Legislature became one of the first States in the nation to enact a relatively comprehensive “Ban the Box” law. The newly adopted statute prohibits employers from asking job applicants questions about their criminal background until, and only if, the employer is interviewing the applicants and/or making a conditional offer of employment. In taking such action, the Minnesota Legislature seems to have recognized that giving people a second chance is not only the right thing to do, it is also good for our communities and business overall.