‘Ban the box’ is a break for ex-offenders trying to get a job

Kevin Hurley paused Wednesday while painting an apartment in Kansas City, Kan., to say how much his life has changed since he got a job.

Hurley, 55, was in prison for 30 years and five months. When he was released on Jan. 18 this year he had little hope of landing work because of his criminal history.

He found, like other ex-offenders, that many job applications ask upfront about arrests or convictions, and employers’ policies immediately reject them.

That’s why Hurley, imprisoned for murder and robbery, was happy to learn that Target Corp. announced this week it will remove criminal history questions from its applications nationwide. The company joins a small but growing number of organizations nationwide in a “ban the box” movement to eliminate that kind of blank on application forms.

“It’s really hard if no one wants to give you a chance,” Hurley said. “I never forget about those past years, but now I want to keep those years behind me. … I want others to know what I went through to keep others from making the same mistakes.”

Thanks to the TurnAround program for ex-offenders, offered by Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Hurley got workforce training and mentors. Foutch Brothers, a property management company that’s working to convert the former St. Margaret Hospital to apartments, accepted his job application and hired him.

Several Kansas City area organizations like TurnAround are working to help people like Hurley become better job candidates, giving them a chance to sell themselves to employers based on skills or training instead of being automatically rejected. Now, instead of roaming the streets or returning to crime, Hurley has an apartment, a car and a wage-earning job.

Eileen Bobowski, resource development specialist at TurnAround, said the recidivism rate among ex-offenders whom it has helped in the past two years was only 16 percent — remarkably lower than the 45 percent to 65 percent return-to-jail rates generally found among ex-offender populations.

According to data gathered in connection with a Department of Labor grant, TurnAround helped 391 ex-offenders in the last two years. Among them, 328 completed education or job-training programs, and 232 found jobs. So far this year, TurnAround has worked with more than 400 ex-offenders, and more than half have found jobs.

The transition from convict to employee isn’t easy. Bobowski said the re-entry agency uses a phalanx of mentors, case managers, job search consultants, educators and job trainers to help the people in its programs.

“We start the process in the prison system, and we often see them within 24 hours of their release,” she said.

In the end, it takes employers like Foutch Brothers to move the economic needle for ex-offenders. Gwen Grant, president of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City, said this week that re-entry assistance programs can’t make much difference if employers refuse to even consider ex-offenders as job candidates.

That’s why the Target announcement made national headlines this week. By not asking a criminal history question until an applicant reaches the interview stage or gets a conditional job offer, the company is doing what re-entry counselors recommend.

“Other large retailers around the nation need to follow suit,” urged Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project. “Their hiring policies send a strong message about whether they are committed to the communities that support their business.”

Target’s announcement had a legislative push. Starting next year, the state of Minnesota, home to Target’s headquarters, is extending a public employer prohibition against asking about criminal histories on job applications to private employers. The criminal history question should be asked only after an interview or conditional job offer.

Closer to home, the City Council in Kansas City earlier this year voted to “ban the box” on the city’s job applications. In all, about 10 states and more than 50 cities have passed ban-the-box legislation.

And, last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission updated rules that bar all employers from automatically denying employment solely based on arrests or convictions. The agency’s guidance tells employers to evaluate the severity of the offense and the time that has passed since.

The guidance is easier issued than followed. Employers rightly express concern about liability and customer service if they hire an ex-offender who commits further crimes. Employment law attorneys consistently advise employers to conduct due diligence — including background checks — before finalizing job offers.