An underage college student accompanies his friend to a liquor store where the slightly older friend, who is of legal drinking age, buys a case of beer. The pair are stopped, on the way out, by a police officer checking to see if they are old enough to be making the purchase. Though he is only carrying the case of beer and is not the person who made the purchase, the hapless underage student is taken into custody. And the unfortunate incident ends up on his permanent record.
It is situations like these that Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert and leaders of other municipalities addressed last week at a rally at Hinds Plaza, in support of The New Jersey Opportunity to Compete Act. The bill, expected to be voted on next month, would ask employers to sensitively evaluate job applicants who must check the box indicating they have a criminal record. The seriousness of the infringement, and how many years it has been since it occurred, would be taken into account. And if a serious crime was committed, the bill asks employers to consider whether the applicant has proven to be rehabilitated.
“It is in the interest of Princeton residents and all residents of New Jersey that those with non-violent criminal records are eventually able to find gainful employment in the mainstream economy,” said Mayor Lempert, who delivered a speech. “In fact, it’s not surprising that having a job significantly reduces the risk of recidivism — lowering the crime rate and enhancing public safety for everyone’s benefit.”
Under the Opportunity to Compete Act, criminal background checks are delayed until later in the hiring process. The bill does not apply to violent crimes including sex offenses, and it does not prevent employers from conducting background checks. Nor does it force an employer to hire anyone with a criminal record or hire an applicant deemed unsuitable or unqualified.
Some 65 million adults in the United States have a criminal record, Ms. Lempert said, the highest level in this country’s history. “This is largely because of increased enforcement of non-violent drug offenses,” she said. “As a result, we spend an incredible amount of money incarcerating people for non-violent crimes and then creating a system where once they’ve served their time, it’s nearly impossible for them to find a job.
“On top of that, the vast majority of people with criminal records, even of those convicted, have never spent a day in prison. Yet in some ways we are giving them a life sentence of never getting a fair shake at a job. We have to ask ourselves — is this system actually making us any safer?”
Laws similar to the proposed bill have been adopted by 12 states. The bill is sponsored by Senator Sandra B. Cunningham and Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman. It is “not about handouts or giveaways, but rather responsibility,” Ms. Cunningham has said. “The text of the legislation is summed up in a phrase: competing, win or lose, on your own merits.”