“Ban the Box” efforts gaining traction

St. Paul City Council Member Melvin Carter III was poised to push for a new ordinance restricting private employers from inquiring about criminal records of potential job candidates.

But Carter may not have to. Proposed statewide legislation at the Capitol may take care of that.

Commonly referred to as "ban the box," the efforts would prohibit employers from asking job applicants about their criminal histories until the applicant has secured an interview. After that point, employers would be allowed to broach the subject.

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Minnesota already has a similar measure in place for public employers that was signed into law by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty in 2009.

The latest bills in both the Senate and the House have cleared committees in recent weeks and are headed for floor votes. If passed, the law would make a local ordinance unnecessary, Carter said.

Why should lawmakers ban the check box and question on job applications asking about prior convictions? The fear is that hiring managers are weeding out candidates based on criminal histories that might be so minor or old that they have no bearing on the applicants' ability to perform the job in question.

"If you get 20 resumes, look at the 20 resumes to see who is the most qualified candidate for the job," Carter said. "Don't throw some away because one in five has something that can show up on a criminal background check. The question we have to ask ourselves is, 'Do we think we can compete as a region when we're dismissing 20 percent of the potential labor market?'"

The measure is seen as one way to narrow the unemployment gap between whites and people of color. The Twin Cities metro area has more than a 3-to-1 ratio of black-white unemployment, making it one of the largest disparities in the nation.

But some of the root problems appear further upstream in a person's life. African-Americans and Latinos are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system. For example, black teens in Minnesota are six times as likely as their white peers to be arrested, according to a recent state report.

Carter introduced his ordinance Wednesday, but said he'll wait to see what action the Legislature takes before revisiting the matter in May.

(File photo of Melvin Carter by Laura Yuen/MPR News)