If you've been out looking for a job lately, you've probably had to answer a short, but critical question: "Have you ever been convicted of a crime? It's just a 'yes' or 'no' answer."
Hennepin County resident Loretta Ross felt trapped when she got to that question. Two and half years ago she was convicted of what she calls a "lower level misdemeanor." She won't say what the crime was.
"That question kind of stopped me dead in my tracks," Ross says. "I felt like by answering this I'm doomed, and if I don't answer it, I'm doomed. Of course they want you to be truthful. That is what is kind of scary about it. And if it's scary for me, it can be intimidating for a lot of people. So that stopped me dead in my tracks and I didn't want to complete the application at that point."
For more than three decades Minnesota has had a law on its books saying state policy is to encourage rehabilitation of criminal offenders through employment. As part of the statute, government agencies are prohibited from disqualifying job applicants based on prior convictions.
Even so, cities have kept the conviction question on their applications, even for jobs that don't require a background check.
Guy Gambill is with the Center for Crime and Justice in Minneapolis. His organization's recent study on hiring practices concluded that the conviction question is not only a deterrent for applicants with criminal records. It also could be discriminatory and against state law. So he has been working with cities and counties to remove the question from the initial application.
"It's very important for a person to be able to look another person in the face and say, 'look, I was 20 years old. I got arrested for a drug offense. I'm 31 years old now, I haven't had any other offenses. I'm a great person. I'm a hard worker.' It means a lot more if you have that personal exchange than to read the results of a background check on a piece of paper and make a decision based on that," Gambill says.
The resolution before the Minneapolis City Council would remove the conviction question from the city's job application form.
Of course, police and firefighter positions will continue to require background checks. And people with certain offenses would still be denied certain jobs. For instance, someone convicted of embezzlement would not be able to work in accounting, and sex offenders would not be able to work with children or the public.
St. Paul recently removed the conviction question from its applications. But City Council President Kathy Lantry says the city hasn't chucked important job requirements.
"It doesn't mean that because you're a felon we're going to hire you, or because you're not a felon we're going to hire you," Lantry says. "The fact is: we need to make sure that the first thing that happens isn't the door getting slammed. If we want to make sure people become productive members of society, and to do that, to buy a home, or whatever, you need a job."
The Minneapolis City Council is poised to follow St. Paul's lead.
Council Member Elizabeth Glidden says removing the conviction question sends a message to residents and other employers that it's important for people to apply for jobs and be judged on their skills.
"We can further this policy of assisting in the rehabilitation of criminal offenders and in a sense as well, strengthening our own communities," Glidden says. "We want people to have jobs. We want them to have housing. It's when they don't have those things, when they can't support themselves and their families, that people are again driven to desperation, and may be more susceptible to the kind of behavior that put them this situation in the first place."
Glidden says she expects the Minneapolis City Council to approve the resolution removing the conviction question from job applications.
Advocates for the change expect Hennepin and Ramsey counties to vote on similar resolutions in the coming weeks.