In support of the New Jersey Opportunity to Compete Act
It’s no secret that we lead busy lives here at Princeton. And though many students try nobly to engage with the world beyond the FitzRandolph Gates, it’s easy to shut out the issues that don’t seem to affect us directly. I’d like to take this space to challenge the idea that mass incarceration doesn’t affect us, and to advocate for the New Jersey Opportunity to Compete Act, informally known as Ban the Box.
But first, a few questions: Have you ever purchased or possessed alcohol before the age of 21? Do you have any friends who have?
While Princeton’s campus has — in a way — insulated us from the repercussions of criminal activity, it’s important to remember that under different circumstances, we could find ourselves facing criminal charges for the kinds of activities we practice routinely and without fear. It’s important to remember, too, that not all young adults are presented with these same favorable circumstances. Perhaps then, we should question whether the very first thing an employer should know about you is your status, in the eyes of the law, as a criminal.
Ban the Box, so called because it seeks to remove the check-box asking job applicants about past low-level criminal convictions from job applications, is an act that will come before the New Jersey Legislature in early May. Ban the Box seeks to decrease barriers to employment opportunities and thus break the cycle in which doors to reentry are closed before they can even meaningfully be opened for individuals convicted of nonviolent crimes. Background checks could and would still be conducted after conditional offers of employment were made to job applicants, but applicants could first be evaluated on their merits and credentials.
We need to support this legislation both because of our closeness to it and because of our distance from it. I know that as a white female, it is unlikely that I will be stopped and frisked on the subway when I go home, pulled over when I drive a car or be selected for random search.
I know that I occupy a world that allows these problems to remain largely out of sight and out of mind. Privilege is about the ability to not think about things if we choose not to.
We should support the New Jersey Opportunity to Compete Act, and others like it — as future members of the workforce, as taxpayers and as people conscientious of the fact that we are products of the opportunities that we have been afforded and the mistakes we haven’t been penalized for. High recidivism rates do not benefit anyone.
This legislation can’t and won’t solve all the problems of our justice system. It won’t fix the fact that though white Americans use drugs at 10 times the rate that African Americans do, African Americans are imprisoned for drug offenses ten times as frequently. It won’t change the fact that there are individuals in this country serving life sentences for nonviolent crimes, or that of the 2.3 million Americans currently serving time in prison, over half are there for nonviolent crimes, or that a year in prison costs as much as a year at Princeton. But it’s a start.
Filipa Ioannou is a sophomore from New York, N.Y involved in the Ban the Box NJ campaign. She can be reached at email@example.com.