Imagine that Matthew, an eighteen-year-old college student, has just received a bid to his campus’s most popular fraternity and is on his way to another member's dorm room to celebrate. When he arrives at the get-together, liquor bottles are everywhere. Asked by one of his “big brothers” to drink, he did – heavily. When the fraternity decided to carry the party to a local bar in town, they were met by the city’s police. That night, Matthew and his fraternity brothers were arrested for public intoxication, disorderly conduct and destruction of private property.
Four years later, Matthew has graduated from college and is now searching for a job. Yet his chances for being employed are severely limited because he has to check a box on the application indicating that he has a criminal record. While Matthew’s past decisions reflect lapses in judgment and should be accounted for, how long should the mistakes he made in college hold him back? With this and similar questions in mind, many New Jersey state senators are now questioning the job selection process.
In February 2013, New Jersey Senate Majority Whip Sandra Cunningham (D-Jersey City) introduced The Opportunity to Compete Act which would shift inquiries into a candidate's criminal background to later in the application process. If a candidate meets the employer's standards and a conditional offer of employment is made, the employer can then conduct a background check. This legislation is important because New Jersey employers and potential candidates will recognize that a momentary lapse in judgment should not signal the end to their professional careers before they have even begun to bloom. We must not equate a person who makes a bad decision with a person who is ill equipped to carry out a certain job assignment. By conducting a criminal background check only after a conditional offer of employment has been extended, we can restore the future of our youth and stimulate the economy.
The legislation is part of a nationwide campaign called "Ban the Box," referring to the box applicants check when asked if they've been convicted of a crime. So far, 24 US cities, including Boston and San Francisco, and three US counties have "banned the box," according to the National Employment Law Project.
It must be mentioned that those who were convicted of serious crimes such as rape, murder, and terrorism are not beneficiaries of The Opportunity to Compete Act. But in New Jersey, not only do the aforementioned acts grant someone a criminal record, but so do traffic violations, bad checks, lewdness, smoking pot, and, as mentioned previously, disorderly conduct and public intoxication. People make mistakes and lapses in judgment should not affect their job prospects for the rest of their lives. The passage of The Opportunity to Compete Act would make the employment process fairer for young people in the state, especially young people of color, while also expanding employment opportunities for all New Jerseyans.
Beyond creating a fairer process, this bill also has economic benefits. Recent research indicates that individuals with a past criminal history are less likely to commit future crimes if they have employment. If unable to support themselves financially, these individuals are more likely to pursue illegal activity to obtain a consistent income.
When Matthew is forced to indicate whether he has a criminal record, employers are likely to toss out his application without fairly considering him. And think about the young male of color who hasn't graduated college and has a minor drug offense on his record? Often times, job candidates do not have the opportunity to explain their situations before the employers make decisions that affect their futures. But this bill can change that. Asking applicants about their criminal record after a conditional offer is made ensures that all candidates are fairly considered. Put simply, this bill can give individuals who made mistakes a second chance, while also giving every New Jerseyan the opportunity to positively contribute to and enhance our economy.
This article is in support of the Ban the Box NJ campaign, which is a statewide grassroots campaign led by students. For more information about The Opportunity to Compete Act and this campaign, visit bantheboxnj.com.