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Employers urged to rethink criminal records

Emily Baxter, founder of the We Are All Criminals project, and Kevin Lindsey, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, talk about criminal records and second chances at a Northland Human Resource Association event Tuesday in Duluth. Brooks Johnson /

If a doctor, a business owner and a mayor had been caught for the crimes they committed in their youth, would they have had the opportunities to contribute to society in the ways they have?

Emily Baxter said based on the experiences of the more than 65 million Americans with criminal records, probably not. But that doesn't have to be the case.

"One in four Americans have a criminal record; four in four are criminals," said the executive director of the We Are All Criminals project. "Our crimes, our mistakes, do not define us."

Baxter addressed a crowd of more than 50 at an employer-training event in Duluth on Tuesday that focused on second chances and rethinking how criminal records shape hiring decisions.

"What would life be like for you if your introduction to the world was ... by your mugshot, your criminal record," she said, sharing the stories of people who had avoided such a fate despite confessing to past crimes that ran the gamut of petty theft, assault, arson, drug running and more.

One man who was part of Baxter's project of anonymous confessions is today a high-level contractor.

"Had he been caught he would have trouble getting work at a gas station," she said, but instead he and others have the "luxury to forget" while others carry around convictions that close doors to jobs and homes.

Minnesota Department of Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey was also on hand at Tuesday's event, put on by the Duluth Workforce Development Board, the Minnesota WorkForce Center and the Northland Human Resource Association. He talked about the state's "ban the box" law and what kind of meaningful information should be sought when it is appropriate to ask about past convictions. The law prevents many employers from asking about criminal records until the interview process or a conditional job offer.

"Inquire about their age at the time, the length of time that has passed, the severity of the circumstances," Lindsey said. "How deeply are we looking at that to make sure there's no implicit bias in play?"

He said the ban the box law, which went into effect for public employers in 2009 and private firms in 2014, has made some progress in getting people to work. But the disparities in unemployment among communities of color — who are disproportionately represented in the prison system — remains glaring, he said.

Duluth's unemployment rate for African-Americans was 28.2 percent in 2015, according to Census data; it was 20 percent for Native Americans and 6.7 percent for white residents.

Brooks Johnson

Brooks is an investigative reporter and business columnist at the Duluth News Tribune.

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