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Hammonton Debates Pros, Cons Of Doing 'Zero-Tolerance'


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As background checks for volunteer recreation coaches become more and more common in New Jersey communities, one aspect in particular has begun to be debated. Should municipalities disqualify people from coaching because of a minor marijuana conviction in the past - even if New Jersey law specifically exempts that one particular crime from being considered in a background check conducted by New Jersey State Police?

The possiblility of such a "zero-tolerance" policy was discussed at a recent Hammonton Town Council meeting, with Police Chief Frank Ingemi and Town Solicitor Brian Howell responding that any background checks would be proposed as per state law.

"The question is," Howell said at the meeting, "do we want to establish this policy consistent with state law or not establish the policy at all?" Howell later said that the town would investigate what leeway it has in making its background check policy stronger than state law - because such a discrepancy, he said, might lead to lawsuits and loopholes. "We don't want it to be an open invitation for somebody to sue," he said.

Is it? Not only are background checks handled differently by various towns, it's also unclear as to why they're handled differently. Galloway Township Manager Jill Gougher said that that town's standards are the same as those laid down by the state. "The State Police go through the state statutes and certain things come up in a background check," Gougher said. "There's a whole list of things flagged, and they're handled on an individual basis."

Under state law, though, a conviction for possession of marijuana under 50 grams isn't flagged, unlike disorderly persons offenses, domestic offenses, theft or more severe drug offenses. "( A town ) would never know if a person had a minor pot conviction," said Lt. John O'Brien, assistant bureau chief with the State Police.

Barnegat Township, in comparison, does have a zero-tolerance policy, according to recreation director Barbara Levin. She said it was put in place due to the policies of the Megan Kanka Foundation, which provides grant funding to allow towns to begin background checks - although foundation co-founder Maureen Kanka said that wasn't the case. "We've never recommended that," Kanka said of a zero-tolerance policy. "We leave that up to the towns. We ( just ) require that they comply with state regulations."

In any event, Levin said that anything that comes up in a background check, whether a minor drug conviction or something else, is handled by the township on a case-by-case basis. "We didn't want to disqualify anyone with a minor offense," Levin said. "There is a review policy. Say, for example, if you're 45 years old, and when you were ( a teenager ) you were caught with a certain amount of marijuana. You can appeal that to the appeals committee, and if you haven't done anything since then, it's up to them to let it slide."

She said that the background checks have worked out well since they were instituted. "As to whether they're a deterrent or not, I don't know," Levin said. As for whether any applicant's background has ever caused a problem, "we haven't had to deal with it, let's put it that way."

But if minor drug convictions aren't flagged, how would towns like Barnegat with zero-tolerance policies ever know about them in the first place? It turns out that, like many aspects of New Jersey law, the statutes are more Byzantine than one would expect.

O'Brien explained that there are actually two ways a town or nonprofit organization can handle background checks. The Volunteer Review Operation, or VRO, of the State Police, which processes the requests, works under the section of the law that excludes minor marijuana or hashish possession as a disqualifier. The VRO performs the criminal checks by running an applicant's fingerprints through FBI and state records. The results are reviewed by lawyers and returned to either the municipality or directly to the applicant along with the VRO's recommendation. If, however, a town or non-profit preferred a zero-tolerance policy, its background checks would fall under a different section of the law in the New Jersey Administrative Code. The town would learn about minor drug convictions, but there would be two major differences - only state records would be searched, not the federal database, and the results would be sent directly to the town or nonprofit without any lawyer review.

"They'd be receiving the criminal histories back," said O'Brien, "and they'd ( better ) have some level of expertise to know what they're looking at. It would behoove any group interested in going that route to attain some level of competency, or maybe assistance from local law enforcement or an attorney."

As O'Brien said about a hypothetical shoplifting conviction - a flagged offense in all circumstances, unlike minor drug offenses - an agency could always decide on an individual basis that an offense "was so long ago, it doesn't matter."

Whether it would be worth the trouble just to find out about minor marijuana possession - whether long ago, or more recently - is a call that Hammonton and other towns considering criminal checks for coaches still have to make.

Source: Press of Atlantic City, The (NJ)
Copyright: 2007 South Jersey Publishing Co.
Contact: letters@pressofac.com
Website: Press of Atlantic City: Home
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