LAW & PUBLIC SAFETY

ACLU-NJ Opposes Employer Questions About Criminal History, Supports Legalizing Marijuana

The ACLU has accused the Christie administration of impeding access to the HPV vaccine and other family planning measures. ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer told NJ Today Managing Editor Mike Schneider that the governor’s priorities may be out of synch with residents on the issue of health care and education funding. He also said the organization is working to make sure hiring decisions aren’t based on an individuals’ criminal histories and members believe the Garden State should legalize, license, tax and regulate marijuana use for adults.

Ofer said the ACLU-NJ was part of a lobby day yesterday with others, including Planned Parenthood, that met in Trenton with lawmakers to restore funding for women’s health issues, which the Christie administration cut.

Next week, state legislators are going to decide if millions of taxpayer money will be used to fund religious seminaries. “We believe that’s unconstitutional, that it crosses the separation of church and state. We hope the lawmakers vote against this funding. And if they don’t, we’re going to have to seriously consider legal action,” Ofer said.

Ofer explained that if the ACLU were to file a lawsuit, it would be in state court because the state constitution is more protective of religious freedom.

The ACLU is also fighting to remove portions of employment forms that ask applicants to disclose if they’ve been convicted of a crime. Ofer said currently, employers have free reign to ask about criminal history at any point during the interview process. The “Ban the Box” legislation, which is pending before the state legislature, would put procedures in place dictating when employers can ask about a person’s criminal history.

“It would essentially state that questions about criminal history should not happen until after the offer of employment had already been made. So it would be a conditional offer. Then it would set up a period that the employer could do a criminal background check and list what kind of crimes it can look at,” Ofer explained, adding that the step is meant to minimize the impact of minor offenses.

Ofer said the employer would have to take the totality of the circumstances into account and that the legislation would encourage employers to think about if the person has changed. “People shouldn’t be judged by their worst offense. So it would allow the employer the freedom, yes, to think about whether this would be a good opportunity,” he said. “But what’s important is that it would ensure that decisions about employment are not made solely based on criminal background but rather there will be a period after the offer is already made.”

Earlier this month, the ACLU released a report that studied 10 years of marijuana arrests in all 50 states. “The findings of the report were incredibly disturbing,” Ofer said. “It essentially found that the war on drugs has become a war on marijuana and that it is failing. It is failing in the sense that it ensnares hundreds of thousands of people into the criminal justice system and they really shouldn’t be there in the first place. And there’s a disproportionate impact on the black community and it hasn’t led to a reduction in marijuana use. In fact, quite the opposite. Marijuana use has actually gone up.”

Ofer said the ACLU-NJ believes New Jersey “should follow in the footsteps of Washington and Colorado and legalize, license, tax and regulate marijuana use for people 21 or older. Here in New Jersey, 2010 alone, 22,000 arrests occurred for marijuana possession. That’s a non-violent offense.”

According to Ofer, the arrest rates were also skewed. “The likelihood of a black person being arrested was 2.8 times more than a white person despite the fact that there are plenty of studies that show that white people and black people use marijuana at similar rates,” he said.