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Gannet New Jersey’s Witch Hunt for Public Employees with Criminal Records

Gannet New Jersey's Witch Hunt for Public Employees with Criminal Records

by Matthew T. Clarke

The media in New Jersey, spearheaded by Gannett New Jersey publications, has embarked on a campaign to root out public employees with criminal records.

On April 1, 2007, Gannett New Jersey published the results of an investigation that cross-correlated public employee payroll records and criminal records, which revealed that over 1,800 government workers had formerly been convicted of a felony. This included all types of public employees, ranging from sanitation workers to teachers. The report noted that while there is a prohibition against hiring public school teachers with certain prior felonies, such as drug dealing, there is no similar ban on hiring ex-offenders generally for state, county and local government positions.

Even the hiring practices of the Department of Education had loopholes which did not catch some teachers and other school employees who had been convicted of felonies after the initial criminal background check upon hiring. Gannett found six teachers who had serious felony convictions and an assistant principal who had been convicted of illegally carrying a gun. Five other teachers had been hired despite having criminal records.

The highest standards of scrutiny are applied to the most sensitive jobs -- those involving the handling of money or care for children and the elderly -- but no bright line is drawn on who can and cannot be hired. Jersey City's Department of Public Works has a program that allows ex-prisoners to be employed so long as they stay drug free and out of trouble.

"What do you do with everyone who has paid their debt to society?" asked Oren Danby, Sr., chief executive officer of the Jersey Incinerator. "We can't ostracize their rights forever. That's how you rebuild communities -- by giving an opportunity to those who made mistakes in their lives."

Unfortunately, Gannett is not so open-minded. It published the names and occupations of many of the employees in question. After a review of 450,000 public employee records and 586,000 conviction records dating back to 1982, Gannett uncovered 1,800 public employees with criminal histories.

Narrowing the search to the past ten years, Gannett found 980 state, county and local government employees who had criminal records as of the end of 2006. More than 400 were already employed in government jobs when they were convicted. Over a third had been sentenced to jail time, and 158 served over a year behind bars. Fifty-eight were police or firefighters -- 45 of whom were convicted after being hired. Sixteen were teachers, five of whom were subsequently fired when the preliminary results of the investigation became public knowledge.

Nine of the 980 public workers with recent criminal histories, including some with convictions for drug possession and theft, worked for the Department of Children and Families. State law prohibits that department from hiring people with criminal histories involving certain violent crimes or crimes against children.

"Primarily, we look at the severity of the offense and when it occurred," stated Andy Williams, spokesman for the department. "Did it happen 20 years ago? Pre-employment and post-employment, we evaluate it and decide what's in the best interest of the agency."

Almost 400 of the criminal records involved drug charges, which was the most common type of offense. Around 100 involved theft.

Eleven senior state prison guards had convictions ranging from simple assault to offensive touching. None was convicted after being hired; most had 2006 salaries of about $68,400. One of the guards was fired following his conviction but was reinstated with a 120-day suspension. The Department of Corrections declined to comment on guards with criminal histories.

Four Jersey City police officers were among those identified as ex-offenders. Their records included convictions for threatening to kill and using a false driver's license.

Gannett further identified 11 school employees with criminal histories.

This included eight teachers, a janitor, a messenger and an assistant principal. Five had been convicted before being hired and were not caught in the mandatory background check performed by the Department of Education. Of the five, one had been convicted for distribution of marijuana, one for drug possession, one for theft by deception, one for child abuse and one for possession of cocaine. School officials are now calling for background checks to be conducted on school employees every five years. "Obviously, we don't want educators with criminal histories in the classroom," said Dept. of Education spokesman Jon Zlock.

On May 24, 2007, the state Attorney General's office issued a letter to all local prosecutors, directing them to report crimes committed by public workers to the state once the defendants are convicted.

Prisoner advocates worry that such publicity may make it even harder for ex-prisoners to get jobs. They also hope the negative media attention will not lead to a backlash against the Second Chance Act, a national re-entry initiative to help ex-prisoners that is currently pending in Congress (H.R. 1593, S.B. 1060).

Rev. Joseph Robinson, who heads the ex-offender program for Patterson-based Pilgrim Outreach Ministries, noted that while a job is just one component of successful reintegration, it's the key to stability, self-sufficiency and self-confidence. Ex-felons who find steady jobs and successfully re-integrate into society are less likely to re-offend.

Sources: Gannett New Jersey; New Jersey North Media Group

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