Legislature Passes the Opportunity to Compete Act

PRESS RELEASE June 27, 2014 --Yesterday was a historic day for New Jersey, as both houses of the legislature voted to pass the Opportunity to Compete Act. This bill will allow the estimated one in four New Jersey adults with a criminal record to fairly compete for work based on merit, simply by requiring many employers to wait until after the first interview to ask about an applicant’s criminal background. With the Governor’s anticipated signature, New Jersey will become the thirteenth or fourteenth state to pass such a law, depending on if and when Georgia Governor Nathan Deal signs a pending executive order. 

“The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice applauds the extraordinary leadership of Senator Sandra B. Cunningham and Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, along with all the other sponsors of the legislation,” said Jerome C. Harris, Jr., the Institute’s newly appointed Interim President and CEO. “We have been working on this bill together for over two years, and while at times there were moments of uncertainty, neither of these remarkable legislators wavered in their confidence that they could get this done, nor did they waver in their commitment to bringing true economic opportunity to all of New Jersey’s residents.” “Delaying the inquiry about applicants’ criminal backgrounds until after the first interview will give applicants a foot in the door to meet potential employers face to face, presenting their skills and qualifications without the mark of past mistakes clouding the employer’s first impression,” said Rev. Dr. DeForest B. Soaries, Jr., Senior Pastor at First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens. “This will change the unfair practice of screening out anyone with a criminal record, no matter how old or minor, as well as allow employers to find highly qualified candidates that they may have otherwise overlooked.” The broad coalition of mayors, clergy, and advocates who championed the bill were grateful to see the legislature take action on such an urgent issue, while also recognizing the potential for future reform. “While yesterday’s passage is certainly cause for celebration, it is a starting point, and there is still work to be done,” said Rt. Rev. Reginald T. Jackson, Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Twentieth District.

“An earlier version of the bill, which was passed out of the Assembly Budget Committee on June 24, contained a number of important protections not present in the final version.” For example, the final version allows employers to reject applicants based on arrests that have been dismissed. An applicant’s entire criminal record could consist of one dismissed charge of trespass, and an employer could refuse to hire that person based on that dismissed charge, even though a dismissed charge does not give employers any information about character or past conduct. This aspect of the final bill runs counter to other states with similar legislation, nearly all of which prohibit the consideration of arrests that have been dismissed.

Outgoing President and CEO of the Institute, Cornell William Brooks, added these final words: “The Institute hopes that the version of the Opportunity to Compete Act that passed will be a foundation to build on. Senator Cunningham, Assemblywoman Watson Coleman, and the sponsors have commendably laid a broad floor of reform, but not a ceiling. We look forward to a larger conversation about how to remove unfair and overly broad barriers to employment for redeemed individuals so as to expand the pool of available workers, ensure that the best qualified person is matched to each position, and strengthen New Jersey’s economy.”  


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