SOCIAL ISSUES

Has Ban the Box legislation reduced unemployment for former inmates?

BY Andrew Schmertz, Correspondent |

“The person has done their time. When does the punishment stop? When does saying ‘OK, you’ve got another chance’ actually give you a chance,'” said Ron Pierce.

It is a question Pierce has asked many times since his release from prison two years ago. After serving 30 years and eight months for homicide, Pierce says he’s ready to rejoin the working world, if only someone would hire him.

“I tried to get work and when everything went along and they did a background check and ‘Oh, we don’t want you.’ ‘Oh, you’re perfect for the job. We did a background check — we can’t use you,'” Pierce said.

A new report by the Prison Policy Initiative, a group that calls for prison reform, found that the national unemployment rate for felons out of prison is 27 percent.

New Jersey Reentry Corporation, which was founded by former Gov. Jim McGreevey, works to find former inmates jobs. Currently, about 36 percent of their clients in Paterson are unemployed.

“There are a surmountable amount of obstacles that are in the way for formally incarcerated individuals,” said Jada Fulmore, Paterson facility director for New Jersey Reentry Corporation.

Among all the reasons for the high jobless numbers — lack of skills, education and work history — is simply that employers often don’t get past the fact that an applicant has a criminal history.

Employers typically discovered a criminal history by asking job seekers the question on the initial job application. It’s something New Jersey has been trying to address.

New Jersey has had for some years now a Ban the Box law. That law prohibits most employers from asking about criminal convictions on the initial job application, but they are free to do so later in the process.

“In the Ban the Box legislation it pretty much states that employers aren’t supposed to ask our clients about their background, either on applications or in the first round of interview. Now, clients see it on applications all the time and they’re asked frequently,” Fulmore said.

Mark Gero has been in and out of prison for years on drug-related theft convictions.

“You can feel — the body language changes a bit, but it really all depends on how you present yourself. We’re all one thing on paper — black and white — but when you talk to someone you can kind of feel who they really are,” Gero said.

Most of the jobs are low wage, entry level positions. But those who have studied post-prison unemployment for years says there is a turnaround in the state.

“I don’t know if its attributable to the Ban the Box legislation. I’ve seen it very recently because the unemployment rate is so low,” said Reentry Coalition of New Jersey Executive Director Kevin McHugh. “I’ve been getting calls from human resources departments, employers asking me for help in connecting them with our program people to get them offenders for jobs. That’s just amazing.”

As for Ron Pierce, he’s graduated from Rutgers at the age of 60. He hopes someone will give him that second chance he’s been waiting three decades for.