Finding a job is difficult for anyone these days. But it’s near-impossible if you have a criminal record. As research shows those with a criminal record are far less likely to reoffend when they have gainful employment, several states are weighing the benefits and risks of “banning the box”, or limiting how employers can use criminal history in the hiring process. In New Jersey, a bill to do just that is expected to go before lawmakers in the next two months.
The “Opportunity to Compete Act” was first introduced to lawmakers in 2013, and was met with harsh criticism. Employers should know about criminal histories right off the bat, said critics, and should be able to use this information as they see fit, even if that means disqualifying applicants without considering their redeeming qualities. But it’s this thought process that further escalates our already overburdened criminal justice system.
Every single year some 700,000 people are released from prisons in this country, according to the National Employment Law Project (NELP). Many of them struggle to find a legal income in communities where employers don’t want to hire someone they consider a “risk”. This is especially true for those with a felony record.
In the NELP report “65 Million ‘Need Not Apply’”, the agency says that “Shutting workers with criminal records out of the job market compromises the economy and public safety,” issues that all NJ lawmakers should be concerned about.
The bill doesn’t say employers must hire those with criminal backgrounds, but merely gives those applicants with histories of misdemeanors and felonies a chance to get their foot in the door.
By “banning the box”, lawmakers would allow former offenders to compete in today’s job market, only allowing the question of prior convictions to come up later in the interview process, rather than on an application.
Recently, religious leaders from across the state gathered to campaign for the bill, with representatives from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish faiths coming together to discuss the benefits of banning the box.
“We believe in responsibility and accountability,” said Bishop Reginald T. Jackson of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. “But we also believe in redemption and second chances. Once an individual has served his time, we cannot continue to punish him by excluding him from work — the very means of supporting his family.”
Someone convicted of a theft offense or even a drug distribution charge can be reformed. As a matter of fact, most of these people aren’t “bad guys” who pose dangers to their future coworkers and employers at all, but merely those who have made mistakes that amounted to a crime and are now trying to move on.