NJ Passes 'Ban The Box' Bill To Help Former Inmates Find Housing

New Jerseyans leaving prison may have a better chance of finding and securing a place to live after the state Senate and Assembly on Thursday passed the Fair Chance in Housing Act and sent it to Gov. Phil Murphy's desk, after months of negotiation with housing and civil rights groups and the state landlords association.

Murphy is expected to sign the bill. 

The "ban the box" bill (A1919/S250) would bar potential landlords from asking about an applicant's criminal history before making a conditional offer to rent, removing a barrier that would otherwise likely exclude them from being considered.  

People leaving incarceration are nearly 10 times more likely than the general population to become homeless, according to the nonpartisan research group Prison Policy Initiative. Proponents of the bill say it's a great first step to reduce recidivism in a state where more than 30% of people return to prison within three years of being released. 

“Many times, it is before an applicant even has a chance to explain themselves or discuss the application that they have already been denied housing,” said Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly, D-Passaic, a sponsor of the measure. “Under this bill, landlords are implored to take an honest look at the application process and not paint every individual with a conviction with the same broad stroke. We’re fighting generational poverty, homelessness and hopelessness through social justice reform measures such as this one.”

Murphy "looks forward to signing the nation’s most expansive statewide housing protections for individuals with criminal records into law," said Alyana Alfaro, a spokesperson for the governor.

The measure passed the Senate with a vote of 24-8 and the Assembly by a 49-16 tally. 

Under the bill, landlords would be able to ask about a person's criminal record in the application only if the person is a registered sex offender or was convicted of making meth in federally assisted housing.

After making a conditional offer, landlords can look into an applicant's criminal history and can consider whether a person was convicted of murder, aggravated sexual assault, kidnapping, arson or human trafficking. They can consider indictable offenses of the first degree issued within six years, second or third degree within four years, or fourth degree within a year. 

A landlord can withdraw an offer, and has to give the applicant a written explanation that includes specific reasons for the decision. The applicant can appeal and show ways he or she has rehabilitated or any inaccuracies in the criminal record. 

When making the decision, the bill says, the landlord should weigh the nature and severity of the offense, how old the person was when he or she committed the crime, how much time has passed, and whether the offense, if it happened again, would harm the safety of the landlord's property or other tenants, among other factors. 

Colorado offers similar protections for ex-offenders, saying landlords can't consider convictions that occurred more than five years ago, with some exceptions, such as sexual offenses, according to an analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

An estimated 11 cities have adopted similar ordinances since 2014, including San Francisco, Seattle, Detroit, Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., and Newark, according to the Assembly Democrats office. 

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