Princeton University Students Rally Support for "Ban the Box" Legislation

Ray Chao and Brandon Holt, a couple of Princeton University students with a flair for advocacy, have found the perfect way to motivate people to support the state’s pending “ban-the-box” legislation: Self-interest. The Opportunity to Compete bill, introduced in the state Legislature in February, aims to eliminate the notorious “box” that applicants with criminal convictions must check on employment applications, delaying disclosure until farther along in the hiring process.

The box is associated, said Chao and Holt, with hardened criminals, prison sentences and blighted urban communities with a high rate of crime. That public perception, they explained, is skewed. “This is a bill that’s very easy to say, ‘Oh, this doesn’t apply to me, this isn’t my problem,’” said Chao during an interview on campus.

 “We need to break the perception that this only applies to certain people or communities." “If you think about it, especially on a college campus, people under age 21 are drinking all the time. That can lead to a disorderly conduct charge, meaning you would have to check that box. Something like that could follow you for years down the road. So people hear that and think, ‘Okay, now it applies to me or my peers,’” he said. “We’re trying to point out that a lot of those criminal convictions aren’t necessarily indicative of your character or the kind of worker you could be.”

To that end Chao and Holt, who are heading up the ban-the-box New Jersey campaign, are organizing a public rally in support of the bill. The rally will take place May 1 at 1 p.m. in front of the Statehouse in Trenton. The rally precedes an estimated early May introduction of the bill to Senate and Assembly committees under the sponsorship of state Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D–Jersey City), and Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D–Trenton).

Assemblywoman Coleman sponsored similar legislation in 2008 that came to nothing. This time, she said, she is more confident. “I represent the capital city and I am constantly contacted by people who simply want an opportunity to compete. Many of these applicants get eliminated from consideration simply by marking off this box, many of them productive, creative and capable workers,” said Coleman. “This is a way to ensure that employers have access to — feel comfortable with having access to — a pool that they might have otherwise ignored. I think it’s an issue,” she added, “of fairness and second chances.” Right now, applicants for most public and private jobs must indicate if they have been convicted of a first- to fourth-degree crime in the past 10 years, or any disorderly person’s offense in the past five years.

The bill seeks to eliminate those notifications until at least after a conditional offer of employment is made to the applicant, when a full background check could apply. The bill also mandates that any subsequent withdrawal of the offer must be accompanied by a form detailing the reasons. Exceptions would be mandated, however, for more serious crimes. Under the bill, employers may at any time in the employment process consider and be notified of convictions for murder, attempted murder, arson-related crimes, an offense requiring sex offender registry, or terrorism-related offenses.

According to the act, six states and more than 40 cities have ban-the-box legislation in some form, including Massachusetts, Connecticut and Colorado. Those laws can apply to either public or private employers, or both. Supporters of the New Jersey bill, said Chao and Holt, would like to see it become a national standard. One Trenton public figure in particular has every reason to support the legislation: James B. Golden, the former Trenton police director and a 40-year veteran of law enforcement services. He was arrested for a disorderly conduct offense on the night of his high school graduation in 1967. “At that time, of course, I didn’t realize much of anything other than we were out having a good time,” said Golden during a phone conversation. “It wasn’t until I applied to become a police officer that I realized it was something that could haunt me, or at least hurt my chances of getting a job. “I went on to have, if I might say this, a pretty distinguished career as a leader in law enforcement. So for me, it’s all about giving people a second opportunity. In a city like Trenton, where we have all kinds of social challenges and we’re trying to transform our community, this is the kind of thing that can be very useful.”

Chao and Holt got involved in the legislation through Princeton’s PACE program of civic engagement. Both sophomores, Chao and Holt will serve as interns with the New York District Attorney’s Office this summer. Holt said some 80 students on campus are “very passionate” about ban-the-box legislation, and have fanned out to other campuses in the state to motivate their peers. “Employment is the No. 1 factor in reducing the recidivism rate,” Holt said. “So if we make sure people who have a criminal history can get a job and become productive members of society after they’ve paid this debt, then we reduce the recidivism rate. That increases public safety.”

A brief survey of offenses in the consolidated Princeton Police Department, for example, shows 113 arrests already in 2013, including 20 for driving while intoxicated, according to Capt. Nick Sutter. Many of these offenses could compel individuals, if convicted, to check the box indicating a criminal record. In addition, the university, which compiles its own statistics, recorded 17 arrests related to public and underage drinking, according to the Annual Security and Fire Safety Report, 2012.

“When you think about an offense like disorderly conduct,” said Holt, “how many people does that affect? Historically, that was something you got when you were protesting for civil rights. “We don’t want this to be a Princeton issue,” added Holt. “This is a New Jersey issue.” Click here for the article.  

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