When Target says, “Expect More, Pay Less,” who knew the “more” would include an effort to uphold Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964?
Yet, that’s exactly what the Minneapolis-based company did last month when it decided to remove questions about criminal history from its job applications throughout the country.
Today, more than 90 percent of employers conduct criminal background checks on some or all job applicants (up from 51 percent in 1996), according to a 2010 Society of Human Resources Management survey.
This ramped-up use of background checks adds yet another major hurdle to the job prospects of a vast—and unfortunately— growing segment of U.S. workers. An estimated 65 million people in the United States—or one in four adults—have an arrest or conviction record that can show up on a routine criminal background check for employment.
The problem is especially severe for African Americans and Latinos, who are disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system and have historically higher rates of unemployment.
Employment bias is only one problem they must confront.
Each year, millions of people with criminal records, a newly manufactured underclass of citizenship in the U.S., face a maze of policies and regulations that keep them from rebuilding their lives and becoming functioning members of society.
Legal and statutory restrictions, inadvertent and deliberate discrimination practices, and the cultural stigma associated with having a criminal record prevent many people from obtaining services such as education, public housing, employment, public benefits— and even from being foster parents.
The right to vote is also denied thousands of men and women nationwide who have had involvement with the justice system.
When these individuals inevitably fail to reintegrate, they are not the only ones who suffer.
Families are destroyed. Communities are weakened. And the entire country pays a price in increased taxpayer dollars spent on incarceration and other criminal justice costs.
But more significantly, valuable lives are wasted, the public is less safe, and dreams are deferred.
While some employers might be concerned about the potential backlash associated with giving job seekers with records a chance to fairly compete, the fact is that efforts such as the Second Chance Act have enjoyed significant bipartisan support.
A Congressional effort, the Act seeks to reduce recidivism through employment training and placement, substance abuse treatment, and mentoring.
In a recent speech, Senator Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio, said, “The Second Chance Act is an example of how we can work together in Washington, D.C. to get important things done for the American people …
“By reducing recidivism, we not only save taxpayer dollars, we also help people leave behind their past mistakes and become productive members of society.”
Target’s new policy also lines up squarely with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s recent reissuance of guidelines for employers on how to consider arrest and conviction records.
The Commission advises decision-makers that they should conduct individualized assessments of job seekers to avoid violating the Civil Rights Act.
With a U.S. criminal justice system that runs on full throttle and brands more than 65 million people with the mark of a criminal record, we should applaud Target for leading the way and setting a national example for businesses, large and small.
By tackling one of the most important Civil Rights issues of our time, Target is giving formerly incarcerated job seekers an opportunity to fairly compete for employment.
In my estimation, they’ve hit the bullseye.
Glenn E. Martin is Vice President of Development and Public Affairs at The Fortune Society, a nationally respected nonprofit organization that offers re-entry services to formerly incarcerated men and women. He welcomes comments from readers, and can be reached on Twitter @glennEmartin