Ready to get rid of the criminal history box?

For years, standard employment applications have included a line item or box that asks applicants whether they have a criminal history and, frequently, requests further details.

That may be changing soon.

Rhode Island and California both have adopted what have been dubbed “ban the box” laws. The laws ban the criminal history question from written or online applications. Employers can’t pose the question until the first live job interview.

More recently, retail giant Target launched a “Ban the Box” campaign.  

Based in Minneapolis, Target would have been subject to a new Minnesota state law that takes effect Jan. 1 and requires companies to delete the “criminal history” check box on job applications.  

The company intends to roll out the campaign nationally next year, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

“The initiative … calls for employers to wait until a prospective employee is being interviewed or has a provisional job offer before inquiring whether he or she has a criminal past,” the newspaper reported. “The idea is that ex-offenders will have a better chance at getting a job if they’re not eliminated at the very beginning of their job search.”

Dan Oberdorfer, an employment lawyer with the Minneapolis law firm Leonard Street and Deinard, says it’s a big deal, “in the sense that people with criminal records are going to be given a better chance at employment.”

Target isn’t the first big company to do this.

Wal-Mart removed the criminal history box from its applications in 2010, said spokeswoman Dianna Gee. “The removal does not eliminate the background check or drug test, but it offers those who’ve been previously incarcerated a chance to get their foot in the door,” she said.

Indeed, proponents say that sanctions that make it more difficult for ex-offenders to obtain jobs, housing and even basic documents like drivers’ licenses only serve to drive them back to jail.

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission gave “Ban the Box” movement a lift last year, when it expanded and updated a ruling that barred employers from automatically denying people jobs based on arrest or conviction records. The EEOC guidance made clear that an arrest alone is not proof of illegal conduct or grounds for exclusion from employment.

It also explained that employers need to take into account the seriousness of the offense, the time that has passed since it was committed and the relevance of the crime to the job being sought.