Criminal history background check bill advances on party lines

TRENTON – A battle over an employer’s right to inquire into an applicant’s possible criminal history played out this morning in committee.

The entire practice of using lame-duck sessions to push bills through was at issue as those for and against the legislation packed a hearing room here.

A3837/S2586, The “The Opportunity to Compete Act” would prohibit an employer from conducting a criminal background check on job candidates during the pre-application and application process. 

They only could begin to look into a criminal background once a conditional offer of employment has been made to an applicant.

Opponents fear that the proposal essentially would place on employers something of a burden of proof to defend their decision if they would eventually give the job to another applicant.

Supporters paint it as a civil rights, or social justice, issue and argue a generally law-abiding applicant should not be shadowed permanently by a mistake made years earlier, especially something relatively minor.

Opponents argue that they should have an absolute right to know as much as possible as early in the process as possible about applicants.

The Assembly Labor Committee released the bill by a vote of 6-3 along party lines.

Prime sponsor Bonnie Watson Coleman said “one of the greatest barriers to a second chance in New Jersey is the barrier to employment.’’

According to her, there are large employers such as Johns-Hopkins who have acknowledged they would have missed out on great employees if they had dismissed them upon the mere fact of a criminal background in their past.

Sponsors Assemblywoman Grace Spencer and Sen. Ray Lesniak said negotiations with business groups led them to exempt businesses with fewer than 15 employees and those in sensitive areas such as law enforcement.

“We have worked with the business community in eliminating as many things as possible,’’ Spencer said, and that one in four adults with a criminal record will now have an improved employment opportunity.

“If we give up on these folks,’’ Lesniak said, “they give up on us.  Bad things happen.’’

But despite the fact they called this bill “a great opportunity’’ and morally the right thing to do, opponents decried it as over-reaching.

The N.J. Business and Industry Association, for instance, criticized the bill as going beyond what the federal law and some other states have enacted.

For example, there are objections to the fact the bill bars an employer from considering a crime regardless of when it was committed, and it bars an employer from even informing an applicant an offer is contingent on a background check.

Opponents such as the state Chamber of Commerce’s Michael Egenton said that even after discussions with sponsors concerns remain.

Respecting that there is a difference between someone booked for pot possession 10 years ago and someone who served time for robbing a convenience store, “To try to legislate something like this is easier said than done,” he said.

But other backers included Cornell Brooks, executive director of the N.J. Institute for Social Justice, who said 10 other states with similar laws have not seen an increase in litigation as a result.

In addition, he told lawmakers that it is less expensive for an employer to conduct a background check once an offer has been made to someone than to conduct numerous background checks on several prospective applicants at the beginning of the process.

 The bill authorizes an employer to consider in its employment decision convictions for certain serious crimes regardless of when the crime occurred.  These crimes include murder or attempted murder, arson, a sex offense for which the offender served time in state prison and is required to register as a sex offender, and terrorism. 

An employer may only consider other crimes of the first through fourth degree if the crime was committed within the last 10 years. 

An employer also may consider convictions for a disorderly persons offense that occurred within the last five years and pending criminal charges until the case is dismissed.

Meanwhile, GOP legislators were holding court Monday at the same time to voice objection to the Democrats’ overall agenda and tactics of pushing such major legislation through in the lame-duck session.

Criminal history background check bill advances on party lines