Last Updated: January 18, 2022
Friday marked the signing of a new law in New Jersey that limits criminal conviction-related inquiries during rental applications.
Appropriately named the Fair Chance in Housing Act, it’s meant to give former inmates a better shot at procuring a home. The criminal background checks conducted by landlords will be more regulated so as to prevent discrimination.
According to the new law, landlords can run a background check on prospective renters only after giving them conditional approval. This will give all applicants a fair chance, regardless of their criminal background, and cease automatic denials based on an applicant’s criminal history.
The bill was signed by Gov. Phil Murphy, who said on the occasion, “Today, I am proud to sign the Fair Chance in Housing Act into law and work to level what has been for too long an uneven playing field when it comes to access to housing.”
Nevertheless, some form of regulation will still be left up to the landlords, as they will keep their right to ask applicants whether they are listed as a sex offender, have been convicted for murder or aggravated sexual assault, or if they have been convicted of using federal housing for manufacturing meth.
Even if a potential renter is given conditional approval, it can still be revoked if the landlord is uneasy about their criminal past. Critics of the law make this one of their arguments, while others choose to be optimistic and consider this an important step towards progress.
The initiative was lead by the Fair Share Housing Center (FSHC)—a non-profit organization that aims to “end discriminatory or exclusionary housing patterns which have deprived the poor, particularly those presently living in inner cities, of the opportunity to reside in an environment which offers safe, decent, and sanitary housing near employment and educational opportunities.”
Step Towards Equal Rights for Former Inmates
Background checks can be a valuable tool in many situations, such as vetting a new date or choosing the perfect nanny for your children. However, they can also often result in prejudice and discrimination, making it harder for people with troubled past to return to their normal lives and avoid recidivism.
In the past few years, important steps have been made towards giving former inmates a better chance at returning to society by adjusting the level of impact background checks have on them.
A similar bill—the Fair Chance in Hiring Act—was recently passed in Louisiana, encouraging employers not to rely solely on criminal background checks, but to consider the nature of the convictions as well before rejecting a candidate.
Although the issue with former inmate discrimination persists, it’s efforts such as these that promote equal rights for every member of society.