The big box retailer Target will stop asking prospective employees about their criminal records on job applications, the company announced over the weekend. The decision signals an important move toward helping former inmates who struggle to find work because of employment discrimination.
Advocacy groups for ex-offenders’ rights have pushed for years to “Ban the Box,” a phrase referring to the box on an employment application that asks about someone’s criminal past. The question, administered before a person has a chance to even land an interview, can disqualify otherwise eligible candidates off the bat.
But, starting at the beginning of next year, Target will wait until making a provisional job offer before inquiring about a prospective employee’s criminal record, giving candidates the chance to make their case before an employer passes judgement. The company’s decision comes just a few months after Minnesota — where Target is headquartered — approved a “Ban the Box” statute.
“The Box” can be one of the main barriers of re-entry for people with a criminal past. When an employer sees that box checked, it can be an automatic disqualifier. And the practice is so widespread that it can really hurt the chances for employment for ex-offenders. Surveys show that between 60 and 75 percent of people with a criminal past can’t find a job for up to a year after they’ve been released.
Employment discrimination along these lines can also contribute to higher recidivism rates; when former inmates can’t find a job, they might feel that illegal activities — say drug dealing or theft — are their only inroad toward having money to live. One inmate gave his perspective on the problems with the box to radio show This American Life recently.
“Sometimes you get pinned in a corner and you’re forced to do what you know,” said inmate Antwaun Wells. “Like when I got out of the penitentiary this time, for three days I wore the same clothes until I went out and had to steal me some clothes. My sister and my brother and my mama didn’t give me no handout. You know what I’m saying? Jobs, they won’t — you’re a felon. You know what I’m saying? I applied for 35 jobs with my little brother. And just because both of us is felons, we got nowhere.”
The numbers bear this out. About 40 percent of people in the United States who go to prison return within three years of their release.
Wells went on: “I feel like society made a lot of rules to keep people safe. But at the same time, the people that they was trying to keep safe from, they gave us no other option but to go back out and re-offend because they put so many limitations on what we could do that where you have no other option but to go back to what you used to do.”
A Target spokesperson tells ThinkProgress that the company hopes to have removed “the box” from all of its job applications by Spring of 2014.