Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder made headlines in October when he announced that people with a criminal history would no longer be required to disclose it on an application for a job with the state government. While applicants will eventually need to discuss past offenses with their potential employer, the governor hopes that delaying the question will help more people get a foot in the hiring manager’s door.
While the move is characterized as part of the “ban the box” movement that has been adopted by many states, it differs from it in one crucially important way. Snyder removed the “Have you been convicted of a felony?” checkbox on state government job applications only; he didn’t require all Michigan employers to follow suit. It’s a distinction worth keeping in mind when we talk about employment. Voluntarily delaying the discussion of criminal history until later in the hiring process is also known as “fair chance hiring.” Mandating that policy is “banning the box.”
Both the fair chance hiring and ban-the-box concepts have been gaining steam, but the latter is more controversial — for good reason. The rationale behind ban-the-box is that prisoners re-entering society are less likely to reoffend if they have stable work, so it’s good for public safety to ensure that they get hired, even if it means telling employers they can’t use initial applications to ask about past criminal behavior.
Although many offenders commit only minor offenses, employers’ reluctance is understandable. Former offenders are more likely to have engaged in violent, dishonest or antisocial behavior in the past than non-offenders and are more likely to engage in it again (although this likelihood decreases over time). After unsuccessfully encouraging employers to give former offenders a fair chance, advocates of ban-the-box got their proposal passed into law in about half the states.
They may have been well-intentioned, but, as is often the case, asking the government to interfere in the employer-employee relationship backfired.
States that have banned the box have increasingly observed that the policy is having the opposite of its intended effect. Rather than helping former offenders get jobs, this policy was minimally helpful for them, and it actually harmed the employment prospects for black and Hispanic men with clean records.
It’s easy to explain this disparate impact on racial minorities. When employers are determined to weed out applicants with a criminal history but aren’t allowed to screen for it, they screen for things they think are a proxy for it, like race or income. So they reject applicants with less education, certain kinds of names, or addresses in certain low-income areas, inadvertently disqualifying many law-abiding candidates.
Michigan avoided this outcome in 2015 by banning ban-the-box: It forbade local governments from telling employers what they could or couldn’t ask on job applications, leaving an exception for jobs where a statute specifically forbids people with a criminal history from working. Employers who wanted to screen out former offenders could do so, and other employers who wanted to practice fair chance hiring could do that. Now, three years later, the governor has modeled fair chance hiring by opting to remove the box for his potential employees in the state government, a move that was preceded by years of Mackinac Center commentary on the link between smart criminal justice reform and workforce development. This was the right move and just one of the reasons why Michigan is quickly becoming a national leader in safe, effective corrections and criminal justice administration.