Advocacy groups are praising a new Minnesota law that prohibits employers from asking job applicants about criminal backgrounds in the initial stages of the hiring process.
Gov. Mark Dayton signed the statute on May 13, making Minnesota the third state in the nation to “ban the box” on public and private employment forms asking about an applicant’s past criminal history. According to the National Employment Law Project, 50 municipalities across the U.S. have also embraced the policy.
The move, activists say, levels the playing field for all jobseekers and gives reformed ex-offenders a second chance to pursue the American dream.
“As Americans we believe in second chances and we believe that work is redemptive,” stated Benjamin Todd Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, which was part of a coalition that included Take Action Minnesota’s “Justice 4 All Campaign”, the Counsel on Crime and Justice and other groups.
“This is a victory for Minnesota,” he said. “This bill makes it possible for thousands of parents who have made a mistake and paid their price to one day get a job, get their children out of foster care, and pull their lives and their families back together.”
Many ex-offenders are automatically rejected by employers if they check off the box on job applications that indicate run-ins with the law. The new law would delay such inquiries until the applicant has been invited to an interview or has received a provisional job offer, giving ex-offenders a chance to personally make their case.
“These citizens have paid their debt to society; earned the right to rejoin their families; pursue a normal life and to find and keep a job. Yet, they are systematically refused employment because of one little box on job applications. It doesn't matter if that criminal record is unrelated to the job, happened decades ago or is simply inaccurate,” the Minnesota Rehabilitation Association wrote in a call to action on its website.
Minnesota’s measure reflects a growing movement nationwide. And a reluctant business community has been increasingly on board as legal troubles have cropped up, reflected in a set of new guidelines issued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission expressing the agency's view that “an employer’s use of an individual’s criminal history in making employment decisions may, in some instances, violate the prohibition against employment discrimination.”
The practice of using criminal history to screen applicants disproportionally impacts minorities as arrest and incarcerations rates among that group are comparatively high, the agency document noted. While 1 in 17 White men are expected to serve time in prison during their lifetime; by contrast, this rate climbs to 1 in 6 for Hispanic men; and to 1 in 3 for African American men,
Besides avoiding potential lawsuits, the business community can also benefit from a broader range of applicants, advocates said.
“This is not only a victory for prospective job applicants; it is also a victory for employers,” stated Jeff Martin, president of the St. Paul NAACP. “Once this bill is put into law, employers will have access to a labor pool that fully represents what is available in Minnesota, rather than a filtered down version.”
According to economists, employment discrimination against ex-offenders can have an adverse effect on the U.S. economy.
John Schmitt and Kris Warner, economists at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, used Bureau of Justice Statistics data to estimate that in 2008, the U.S. had between 12 and 14 million ex-offenders of working age. Their diminished job prospects lowered the total male employment rate that year by 1.5 to 1.7 percentage points and cost the economy between $57 and $65 billion in lost output.