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A new approach to 'Ban the Box,' five years later

Question: Have you ever been arrested or convicted of a crime?

Answer: This question was banned on job applications five years ago for all employers in Minnesota.

Since the state's "ban the box" law went into effect in 2014, employers have largely gotten that message. The state Department of Human Rights didn't issue any fines over the policy in 2017 or 2018, and now the department is taking an entirely new approach to enforcement.

"We'd like to prevent discrimination before it starts," Commissioner Rebecca Lucero told the News Tribune last month. "We're putting together a rebranding right now — the equity and inclusion team."

Instead of focusing on punishing employers for asking about criminal records — which is still allowed in interviews — the department wants to work more on educating hiring managers about why they should more carefully consider convictions and arrest records.

"The question is overall, how are we creating a strong workforce in Minnesota and making sure we're creating a culture where everyone feels welcome?" Lucero said. "That's built into compliance and outreach."

Ban the box went into effect for public employers in the state in 2009, and in 2014 it was extended to private employers. Minnesota is one of 12 states where ban the box applies to all employers.

The law is meant to give those with criminal records better access to the job market. It doesn't require employers to hire or grant interviews to those folks, but it does remove a barrier to getting in the door.

"So, now I'm looking at you and I can't just throw you into the trash, like I could with your application," said Glory Mitchell, an offender specialist at the Duluth WorkForce Center. "It's very powerful."

While employers are reporting trouble finding employees amid record-low unemployment in the region, nationally about 25 percent of those with criminal records who are looking for work can't find a job, according to the Prison Policy Institute.

Oftentimes the stigma of a conviction will prevent someone from applying in the first place, and Mitchell said that internal barrier can be the hardest to break through.

"They've served their time, and we as a society tend to whip them for the rest of their lives," she said. "It's in society's and taxpayers' best interest for them to get a decent-paying job — then the chances of them committing crimes again go way down."

State and federal law still require background checks for certain professions — commercial driving, working with vulnerable adults or children — but for many other jobs, ban the box advocates say criminal histories shouldn't carry the weight they do now.

"The most effective policies don't just remove the 'box,' they ensure that conviction information is used fairly," writes Michelle Natividad Rodriguez with the National Employment Law Project. "Employers should make individualized assessments instead of blanket exclusions and consider the age of the offense and its relevance to the job."

The Department of Human Rights has those points in mind when it reaches out to businesses.

"It doesn't make sense to exclude a 50-year-old applicant who got a drunk and disorderly when he was a college freshman," said Eric Senske, a legal analyst for the department. "A majority of employers understand those arguments."

Lucero said ban the box can also help address the state's racial disparities in unemployment. The February unemployment rate for black residents was 6.4 percent and 5 percent for Hispanic job seekers, according to state figures. It was 2.6 percent for white residents.

"Making sure people with criminal records can leave full lives, you have to talk about who is being impacted — black men, Hispanic or Latino men," she said, since they have higher incarceration rates than whites.

Lucero said she'd like to see ban the box, or a similar approach, extended to housing and "other areas where there are disparities."

"If not this, what policies would be really helpful for that?"

Duluth eyed for Department of Human Rights office

The Department of Human Rights is proposing to open regional offices in Duluth, Bemidji and Worthington "to allow MDHR to build lasting relationships and serve regional communities through education, outreach, and by addressing specific cases of discrimination," according to a news release.

A news conference in Duluth announcing the proposal was canceled Friday due to weather.

Brooks Johnson

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

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