New Jersey lawmakers are doing their part to advance the growing movement to help prisoners’ re-entry into society with the approval of a bill that would make it easier for some former offenders to find work on their release.
The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee on Monday voted out a bill (S-1687) co-sponsored by Sens. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) and Sandra Bolden Cunningham (D-Hudson) that would set up a mechanism by which former inmates could seek a document certifying them as employable and make it easier for them to obtain public-sector work or get a state-issued professional license. It’s uncertain if a companion bill will be approved by the state Assembly.
“These are people who have been held accountable for their past crimes and have paid their debt to society,” Lesniak said. “They have been rehabilitated and they deserve the second chance, which is a central part of our justice system. Getting a job is a key part of rehabilitation and reentry.”
The measure would allow someone convicted of a crime to seek at sentencing or on release a “certificate of suitability for employment” to assist him or her in getting employment, a professional license, or admission to an exam for licensure or certification. While a 2007 law created such a certificate, few have been issued. This bill renames and broadens the scope of these certificates and provides employers with civil immunity when hiring a former offender who has obtained a certificate. The sponsors expect the promised immunity will encourage more employers to hire ex-offenders.
“This establishes a fair policy that will remove unfair sanctions against a person for past mistakes,” Cunningham said. “By doing this, we will give residents a fair chance of obtaining a job to help them support themselves and their families, and contribute to society.”
To give former offenders another edge, the bill would prohibit public employers — the state, counties, and municipal officers — from denying an applicant a job simply because he was convicted of a disorderly persons offense or a crime. There would be several exceptions, including for those permanently disqualified from holding public office and those convicted of serious crimes, including first- and second-degree offenses that include murder, assault, kidnapping, and sex crimes, as well as terrorism. Those who might pose a danger to the public could also be denied employment. Anyone who believes he was denied a job because he spent time in jail could file a complaint claiming discrimination.
The NJ American Civil Liberties Union supports the measure as a way to make the state a fairer place.
“Barriers to employment for people who have been convicted of crimes are counterproductive and harmful both to New Jerseyans and to businesses that are deprived of potential employees,” said Alexander Shalom, senior staff attorney with the New Jersey American Civil Liberties Union. “When we make it harder for people to find jobs, the entire community suffers.”
The idea of helping former convicts become productive members of society on release has been gaining steam in recent years in New Jersey.
Two months ago, the New Jersey Reentry Corp., based in Jersey City and headed by former Gov. Jim McGreevey, issued a report in which it outlined plans for pilot programs in six sites to test efforts to connect ex-offenders with targeted training and job placement, healthcare case management, and other services. That report also called for better coordination between re-entry efforts and programs run by the state corrections officials and urged the creation of an interagency panel in the governor’s office to oversee the mission long term.
Nothing would require a private employer to automatically hire a certificate holder if the employer determines, after assessing the offender and the circumstances of the crime, that the elements of the crime were substantially related to the job and that employing the offender may present a risk to public safety.
Law enforcement, homeland security, and correctional agencies and the courts would be exempt from the law, though they could choose to follow it.
The bill cleared the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee more than a year ago. The Senate Budget Committee passed it 12-0. A companion measure has yet to make any progress in the Assembly.
Lesniak and Cunningham see this measure is a follow up to the “Ban the Box” law they co-sponsored three years ago. Officially titled the “Opportunity to Compete Act,” that law prohibits employers from asking about a job applicant’s criminal history on the initial job application.
The retiring Lesniak is also supporting a bill to improve the successful reentry of former prisoners by requiring the Department of Corrections to prepare a re-entry plan for each offender within 60 days of incarceration and give credits for successful progress meeting plan goals. Plans would include job training, education, getting a high school equivalency certificate or college degree, participation in individual and group therapy, community service projects, and other activities. Upon successful completion of a reentry program, an inmate would be automatically eligible for parole on his parole eligibility date.