The blog of the Urban Institute
November 12, 2013

A big box bans the box: Removing barriers to employment for convicted felons

November 13, 2013

With holiday hiring upon us, job prospects for the hard to employ are looking up – if only on a temporary basis. But for the 65 million Americans with criminal records, even a temporary job is often out of reach.

That’s why the Target Corporation’s removal of criminal history questions from its employment applications is such promising news. While many state and local governments have decided to “ban the box” on job applications asking applicants if they’ve ever been convicted of a crime, Target represents one of the most prominent companies to do so.

The fact that the big box store offers entry-level jobs makes the decision even more meaningful for the 650,000 prisoners released each year in search of gainful employment.

Our research shows that former prisoners with jobs are less likely to go back to prison than those who remain jobless. But by checking a box on a job application, the odds are good that their application will end up in the trash bin.

Make no mistake: employers who choose to ban the box are not foregoing criminal background checks altogether. The vast majority of employers conduct background checks on prospective employees as a matter of course.

The problem with the box is that is doesn’t let applicants explain what their crimes were, how long ago they were committed, and what they may have learned from their incarceration experience. Removing the box allows qualified applicants to advance to the interview stage, rather than be rejected outright.

With any luck, Target’s decision, no doubt prompted by legislation to be enacted in 2014 in its home state of Minnesota, will lead others to follow suit. In the meantime, much can be done to debunk employment myths about former prisoners.

One is that former prisoners turn down jobs they think are “beneath” them. Our research indicates that over two-thirds of those who found employment – primarily in food service, sanitation, and construction– are highly satisfied with their jobs, enjoy their work, get along well with their coworkers, and feel their jobs will lead to better opportunities.

Given the opportunity, the formerly incarcerated can be productive workers, holding jobs that citizens without records might not want. Such opportunities would benefit former prisoners and their families, and would help contain costly prison population growth while increasing public safety.

Target image from Flickr user Fan of Retail


As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.


This is an interesting article but misstates a crucial point. Most "ban the box" statutes allow for a criminal background check only after a conditional offer of employment is made. This means the background check should happen AFTER the interview. If the check reveals a criminal record, the test is whether the criminal conviction (and only a conviction) is "relevant" to the job sought. The most common cited example is the likely relevance of a conviction for embezzlement by an applicant for a bank job. Irrelevant convictions are most drug possession convictions, DUIs, and a wide range of serious and less serious convictions that have nothing to do with an entry level job. An employer's prejudice about a person's background (eg, they were convicted of a violent offense many years prior) is not a valid basis for denial of employment, and opens the employer to a discrimination lawsuit under the "ban the box" statute. It is important to understand that it is not enough that job applicants be allowed to "explain" their convictions in an interview. The law must require that the employer adhere to the relevance standard, a standard articulated by the EEOC and in numerous state statutes, and that this standard be applied only after the interview process.
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