The Pros and Cons of "Ban the Box" Policies

For the last several years the U.S. economy has failed to create enough jobs for the number of people looking for work. Illinoisans have suffered more than others. Illinois ranks third in the percentage of unemployed workers – 8.6% -- only Rhode Island and Nevada have higher rates of employment.

Some job seekers have fared better than others in this sluggish economy with older workers (40 and older), long-term unemployed, and young adults facing significant challenges. As one might expect, the obstacles to finding employment are even greater if you have a criminal background.

In recent years, several states, cities and counties have implemented “ban the box” policies to help these individuals. These policies bar employers from asking a job applicant whether s/he has been convicted of a crime on a job application.  “Ban the box” advocates contend that individuals who have a criminal history are less likely to be eliminated from the applicant pool before being interviewed if they don’t have to disclose that history at the outset.

With the exception of four states – Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Rhode Island – this prohibition only applies to state, county, or city employers, not private employers.  

Last year, Illinois joined the “ban the box” ranks when Governor Pat Quinn signed an administrative order barring state employers from asking job applicants about their criminal history on an employment application.  In 2012, only 10.5% of workers in Illinois were employed by state or local government -- meaning that few people will benefit from this new policy. What's more, the administrative order does not outlaw the use of criminal background checks prior to employment.

While I do not disagree with the reasoning behind “ban the box” policies, these policies won’t eliminate long-held attitudes about people who have a criminal background. 

Today, more than 90% of employers conduct a criminal background check before hiring a new employee. Employer hiring practices won’t change until all employers are willing to keep an open mind to hiring someone who once ran afoul of the law.

I’m hoping that Target's decision to remove criminal history questions from all its employment applications (in response to Minnesota’s new “ban the box” law) will convince other private employers to follow suit.

Is it asking too much of employers to judge job applicants based on their current qualifications?