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Opinion: Too Big for the Box -- Our Economy, Character, And Crime

Job applicants should compete on their qualifications, rather than be ruled out because of potentially meaningless arrest records or even minor convictions

cornell william brooks

One of today’s major economic challenges to the nation and New Jersey is best described not with new data but with two long-forgotten black-and-white photos. The first depicts a young man with a precocious maturity and the number 7-0-8-9 scratched over his undeniable dignity. The second shows a somewhat older woman whose face reveals both shyness and fierce determination. Yet the number 7-0-5-3 is scrawled like the grime of graffiti across her unrepentant personhood.

The slender young man came to be known not by the arrest number 7-0-8-9 but rather by his formal name: the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. Similarly, the reserved older woman is not known to the world’s schoolchildren as number 7-0-5-3, but rather as the mother of the modern civil rights movement: Mrs. Rosa Louis Parks.

The1956 mug shots and criminal records of civil disobedience for Dr. King and Mrs. Parks were found in a file cabinet in 2004 -- forgotten for nearly a half century. Were those records created today, they could neither be lost nor forgotten. The 65 million Americans (one in four adults) with a criminal record are reminded whenever they fill out a job application that states: “Please check the box, if you have ever been arrested or convicted of a crime.” This tiny box is a massive economic challenge to both job applicants and business.

The misuse of criminal records by some employers is not only an economic challenge but also a moral challenge. Business leaders, advocates, and legislators are addressing both with the proposed New Jersey Opportunity to Compete Act, sponsored by Sen. Sandra Bolden Cunningham and Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman.

The economic challenge starts with today's ubiquitous digital technology. Anyone’s criminal record is accessible to anyone anywhere in the world with the click of a mouse or the swipe of a finger across a screen. These Internet records, no matter how old or inaccurate, have digital eternal life. For employers protecting business reputations, workplace safety, and staff quality, criminal record access is critical.

Once a person with a record checks the box, the employment process often ends immediately -- regardless of what the record actually says. A box-checked application is often trashed unread.

Employers who blindly screen out applicants by the box hurt both business and applicants. The majority of people with criminal records have neither spent time in prison nor committed a felony or violent crime. Many are not guilty of any crime at all. Most have been arrested, but not convicted. Moreover, of those convicted, most have only been convicted of nonviolent and often minor crimes.

According to Princeton sociologist Devah Pager, having a criminal record decreases the likelihood of a white male job applicant getting called back for an interview by at least 50 percent. For black men, the rate is even 40 percent worse than for white men.

A man with a record of incarceration will lose $100,000 of income in his prime earning years. Not surprisingly, people formerly incarcerated lower the national employment rate as much as 0.9 percent; male employment, as much as 1.7 percent; and those of less-educated men as much as 6.9 percent. This joblessness costs at least $57 billion nationally and annually.

With 65 million Americans with a record, 2.4 million incarcerated nationally and 41,000 statewide, everyone knows someone with a record -- from the studious Rutgers undergrad with a high school shoplifting conviction, to the respected middle manager guilty of a nearly forgotten sorority prank, to countless scores of ambitious young men arrested but never convicted under “stop and frisk” policing run amuck in our cities.

The box is also a moral challenge. Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson has long written empirically, eloquently, and sadly about what happens to poor communities when their citizens aren’t able to work. Joblessness frustrates not only the ability and ambition to hold a job but also the ability and perhaps the aspiration to raise a family responsibly.

Imagine the possible moral consequences of employer policies that impede the ability of literally millions of people to compete fairly for work. Many employers, employees, and parents believe that work is not merely economic activity but a moral exercise. Work and even the ability to compete for work can imbue the young with discipline, ambition, an aversion to crime, and the aspiration to start a family responsibly.

Using the box to unfairly screen out qualified applicants, with minor convictions or mere arrests, not only affects them getting jobs, but also building character, forming families, and contributing to the community. For example, a child who sees a parent working -- or even competing for work -- gets a moral lesson in responsibility.

After meeting with the business community for nearly a year, Sen. Cunningham introduced the New Jersey Opportunity to Compete Act. The legislation would move the box off the application and postpone (but not eliminate) a criminal background inquiry. This is precisely the same practical policy of America’s largest private employer, Wal-Mart, and the nation’s largest public employer, the federal government. This policy would allow job applicants first to be considered and compete on their qualifications -- then be asked about and assessed on any criminal record.

Should this legislation pass, New Jersey would join over 50 jurisdictions and 10 states with similar laws. With the bill’s introduction and a dozen pro-business compromises, this bill is now poised to become America’s most business-sensitive and community-responsive law of its kind.

New Jerseyians extol the values of competition and fair play on the sports field. We need to do as much in the job market -- particularly for those who only want a shot at a job.

Cornell William Brooks, Esq., 
is president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.

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