November 22, 2011
By Joshua Wilwohl
Newark Councilman Ronald C. Rice wants ex-offenders treated equally among candidates applying for city jobs.
Rice said he will propose legislation next month before city council that would ban municipal employment applications from asking about criminal history, "I want to be able to allow a person to give an explanation about their criminal history."
The councilman joined roughly 20 Newark residents Monday afternoon for a public hearing about the measure. 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 U.S. cities, including Boston and San Francisco, and three U.S. counties have "banned the box," according to the National Employment Law Project.
In Newark, Rice's ordinance is co-sponsored by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.
"For people who have served their debt to society, this is an opportunity for them to get employment," said Scott Nolen, communications director of the institute, before the hearing.
Rice said "Ban the Box" is a procedural law that limits asking about criminal history on initial job applications — it does not prevent employers from conducting background checks.
Julien Neals, Newark's business administrator, said the Mayor Cory Booker administration supports the ordinance, "This can empower Newarkers and it's very germane to a number of the population."
In the past, Booker has been a fan of programs that benefit ex-offenders, going as far as posting YouTube videos
, explaining job initiatives for people previously incarcerated. The city also has its own prisoner re-entry program
. Booker was unavailable for comment.
Data from a 2009 prisoner re-entry study, conducted by the Manhattan Institute, showed roughly a quarter of Newark's 280,000 residents "have, at one time or another, been 'involved' with the criminal justice system."
Some 1,700 ex-offenders return to the city from state prison each year and another 1,400 return from Essex County jail each month, according to the data.
It's unclear if those numbers have changed in the past two years, but Nolen said his organization is conducting a study on criminal history and employment in Newark, which is expected to be released next spring.
During the hour-long hearing, Rice heard from Newark residents who support the ordinance. None opposed.
Nicole Singletary, 33, told the councilman she has a friend with a criminal history who applied for a job in Newark and was rejected, "Everyone should be able to have the same opportunity."