People coming out of jail, looking to step back into society as productive citizens are burdened with what former Gov. Jim McGreevey called “A scarlet letter,” not A for adultery, he said, but F, for felon.
McGreevey, who came to City Hall in Jersey City on Dec. 4, said people who fill in the box on a job application that says they have been convicted of a crime are most often excluded from being considered for getting the job, without even an interview.
Cunningham said ex-offenders are caught in a Catch 22. If they do not check the box and get the job, they can be fired later for lying about it. If they tell the truth and check the box, they may never get the chance to make the case that they should be hired.
This is the theory behind new legislation proposed by state Senators Raymond J. Lesniak and Sandra Bolden Cunningham, part of a package of “reentry bills” designed to help ex-offenders find a way back into legitimate society, breaking the cycle that seems to keep them returning to jail.
“If a person gets an interview, then the boss might get a chance to see what a great employee this might be,” Cunningham said.
This is not an attempt to hide the fact that this or any other person served time in jail, but to give him a fair shot he might not get if he checks off the box.
“An employer might look at that box and then not look at the rest of the application,” Cunningham said. “Our bill would give that person a chance to sell himself.”
Cunningham was joined by a group of mayors from across the state at a meeting hosted by Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop to promote “The Opportunity to Compete Act” that would allow ex-offenders to avoid declaring their past until they had an opportunity to be interviewed.
Cunningham, who represents Jersey City and Bayonne, sponsored the bill in the state Senate. She said this is not about handouts or giveaways, but rather responsibility, and allowing a person to make his or own case before being prejudged by checking a box.
“As mayor of Jersey City,” Fulop said, “I am responsible for the public’s safety and economic well-being of my city’s residents. The Opportunity to Compete Act will make our streets safer and more jobs available to our citizens, which we know go hand in hand. We are working to develop more opportunities for our residents and this legislation creates a pathway for more people to return to the workforce and find lasting employment.”
Currently, more than 90 percent of employers ask job seekers on the initial job application whether they have been arrested or convicted of a crime, said Maplewood Mayor Victor DeLuca. “Checking yes usually means the application will be thrown in the garbage and the job seeker will not be considered at all.
An estimated 65 million adults in the United States or about one in four have a criminal record, according to statistics supplied by the mayors.
McGreevey, who is developing a new re-entry program for the city and has been involved in similar programs for Hudson County, was on hand to support the effort.
This legislation does not prohibit the employer from asking about a person’s criminal background, but delays the question until after it is determined if the person is qualified to do that job. An employer, however, would not be able to ask about an arrest that did not lead to a conviction. The bill would affect businesses and government that have more than 15 employees.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.