Former drug dealer Micah Khan, 33, of Camden, went to Trenton on Monday to make another kind of sale. A single father who struggled to get a job when he got out of prison in 2007, Khan wanted to sell New Jersey lawmakers on the importance of proposed legislation that would help people with a background like his find work. "This is a lifesaving bill because it brings hope," he said at a Senate Labor Committee hearing, squeezed in before the end-of-the-session budget sprint toward recess began in earnest Monday afternoon.
Titled "the Opportunity to Compete Act," the proposed law would prohibit employers from asking about an applicant's criminal history until there was a conditional employment offer on the table. "People are not going to be hanging on street corners. They aren't going to be shooting each other if they are working 9 to 5," said Khan, who heads the Nehemiah Group, a prison reentry and renewal ministry in Camden. Khan called himself a realist and said he knows criminal-history questions are going to come up, "but don't disqualify me before you get me in the room."
Around the country, the type of bill discussed Monday is known as "ban the box" legislation. It's named after a box on a job application that asks potential employees whether they have been arrested or convicted of a crime. When computers scan job applications, a check in that box can mean an immediate disqualification without giving the applicant a chance to explain. Six states and many other jurisdictions, including Philadelphia, have ban-the-box laws on their books, although the details vary. But it was the details that grabbed the attention of the committee on Monday. "Ban the box? That victory's won," State Sen. Richard J. Codey (D., Essex), a committee member and former governor, commented during the hearing. Codey said he was concerned about how different counties handle crime. The bill says that people with serious offenses, such as murder, rape, and aggravated assault, can be questioned about them at the start of the job-application process. Codey said that Essex County downgrades crimes, and he was worried that a serious offender would slip through the cracks.
Monday's hearing was the second for the Senate committee. There were more opponents of the measure at the first hearing earlier this month. Business leaders say the inability to inquire about crimes early on poses safety and security risks. They also said it is a waste of time and money to wait to find out whether someone has a criminal past - especially when they find the crime conflicts with the nature of the job. "This is going to raise safety and security concerns," said Stefanie Riehl, assistant vice president of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association. Among those testifying Monday was former Trenton Police Chief James Golden. He said that unemployed ex-offenders would be more likely to return to crime, putting a larger burden on law enforcement.
The bill does not change laws requiring extensive background checks early in the process for law enforcement personnel, Golden said. Also testifying was Cornell Williams Brooks of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice in Newark. After the hearing, Brooks said that with 13,000 people released each year from New Jersey prisons, stories like Khan's attract the most attention. But, the majority of people who need the bill's help are those who are arrested but are never charged, tried, or convicted, he said. Many never serve jail time. "It's the middle-aged executive arrested for a fraternity prank, 10 or 15 years ago, public urination, some minor off-campus infraction," he said. When all these people can't get jobs, they impact the state's economy, he said. "They are customers whose ability to buy from stores is impaired." It's unclear when the Senate committee will vote on the bill. The Assembly version also is in committee.
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