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Senators Cunningham, Ruiz & Lesniak Introduce Legislation To Ban The Box, Remove Unfair Barriers To Employment

Senator Sandra Bolden Cunningham, D-Hudson, speaks during a caucus meeting before the scheduled voting session.

‘New Jersey’s Opportunity to Compete Act’ Will Ensure All New Jerseyans Have the Chance to Gain Employment Based On Merits

TRENTON – Senators Sandra Bolden Cunningham, M. Teresa Ruiz and Raymond J. Lesniak today introduced legislation that would end a discriminatory practice that blocks ex-offenders from finding work, while improving the economic viability, health and security of New Jersey’s communities and reducing recidivism rates throughout the state.

“Across the state, law-abiding ex-offenders are finding that their past mistakes serve as a barrier to employment in this already tough economy,” said Senator Cunningham, D-Hudson. “One in four Americans has a criminal record that could show up in a routine background check. With the increased usage of these checks, qualified applicants – many of whom have already paid the price for their past infractions – cannot even get their foot in the door to be considered for jobs.”

“New Jersey’s Opportunity to Compete Act” would limit the criminal history inquiries allowed by New Jersey employers when interviewing applicants for a job within their company or organization. The bill would “ban the box” – the check box on most employment applications that requires applicants to disclose whether they have a criminal conviction in their background. Often employers will throw out an application with a checked box rather than evaluating the applicant on his or her merits. This bill would require that employers not inquire about an applicant’s criminal history until after the applicant has been found otherwise qualified and a conditional offer of employment has been made.

According to the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, a criminal record can reduce the likelihood of a job callback or offer by nearly 50 percent. The Senators note that a person should at minimum be able to show their qualifications for a position and explain their criminal history prior to being denied a job.

“People who are unemployed already face a number of barriers when it comes to finding a job. For those who have a criminal conviction in their background, obtaining gainful employment is that much more difficult,” said Senator Ruiz, D-Essex. “We have to give everyone, including those who have an infraction on their record and have paid their debt to society, a fair opportunity to find employment.”

The bill would allow employers to consider criminal records for a reasonable period of time after the applicant has been released from custody, or after sentencing if the person was never in custody. An employer may consider in their hiring decisions: indictable offense convictions for ten years following the release from custody or end of sentencing; disorderly person convictions and municipal ordinance violations for five years following the release from custody or end of sentencing; and any pending criminal charges.

This legislation would not limit an employer from considering criminal records occurring within any timeframe that involve serious violent crimes including murder, attempted-murder, arson, sex offenses requiring registry and acts of terrorism.

“Our current system allows for a highly-qualified job candidate’s application to be thrown immediately in the trash based on a single question that disregards the nature or gravity of a past offense, the time that has passed since the offense occurred and the rehabilitative efforts taken on the part of the applicant,” said Senator Lesniak, D-Union. “By de-emphasizing criminal history and postponing background checks until after the person has had the chance to compete with other eligible applicants and to prove their qualifications to the employer, we may be able to open doors to employment for many New Jersey residents.”

The legislation will also provide applicants with the right to appeal a denial of employment. After receiving notice that the conditional employment offer has been withdrawn, applicants will have 10 business days to challenge the accuracy of the criminal history and present additional evidence of rehabilitation or other factors for the employer to consider. If the employer has yet to fill the position, they will be required to consider the additional information.

Many “ban the box” advocates state that requiring criminal history violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in employment based on race, gender, national origin or other protected categories. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the US agency responsible for enforcing Title VII, determined that barring people from employment based on their criminal records disproportionally affects minorities since they are overrepresented in the criminal justice system. According to a 2012 University of Michigan Law and Economics Study, African-Americans are seven times more likely to have a prison record than whites.

“Urban and minority communities are disproportionally affected by unfair hiring practices that keep ex-offenders from finding employment,” said Senator Cunningham. “But we know that keeping ex-offenders out of the workforce only fuels the cycle of crime and incarceration. We must allow these individuals to rehabilitate themselves, so they can begin contributing again to society. Because just like all New Jerseyans, ex-offenders need to be able to be gainfully employed to buy food, pay rent and provide for their families.”

According to a study in Illinois, only eight percent of those who were released from prison and held a job for a year committed another crime compared with the state’s 54 percent average recidivism rate. New Jersey has a similar recidivism rate of 55 percent, according to the state Department of Corrections.

“Employment is a key factor in deterring ex-offenders from committing another crime,” said Senator Ruiz. “Kept out of mainstream employment opportunities, ex-offenders often turn back to a life of crime in order to support their families or themselves. We can end this cycle by simply providing them with an avenue to employment.”

“Not only is this legislation good public policy that will help prevent ex-offenders from being driven back into a life of crime, it is also a way to spur economic growth in our state,” said Senator Lesniak. “By removing barriers to employment, like the criminal history check box on applications, we can make it easier for ex-offenders to get a job, become law-abiding citizens and to begin contributing to the overall economy of the state.”

“Ban the box” initiatives have taken hold across the country. Currently, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico and Washington DC have passed legislation limiting criminal background checks during the hiring process. Additionally, over 40 cities and counties including Atlantic City and Newark have passed some sort of “ban the box” reforms.

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