People with criminal records don't arouse much sympathy. That's understandable and inevitable. People in general and elected officials in particular are more likely to utter some version of "lock 'em up and throw away the key" than to suggest that society find a way to help ex-offenders.

Problem is, there's a great social and financial cost to that attitude.

It costs approximately $39,000 a year to house a prisoner in New Jersey. Approximately 14,000 adult inmates are released each year - and nearly 55 percent of those people end up getting rearrested. That makes for one expensive revolving door.

So reasonable attempts to reduce that recidivism rate can save taxpayers money, as well as reduce crime. Think, too, of the wasted lives of offenders who could have been productive members of society, and the families these prisoners leave behind.

A key reason why so many ex-offenders become repeat offenders is economic. When an inmate gets out of prison and can't find a job, or the only job he or she can get is mopping a floor somewhere ... well, it's easy to see how crime could beckon. That's not an excuse. It's just a fact.

All of which makes a bill sponsored by state Sens. Raymond Lesniak, D-Union, Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, and Sandra Cunningham, D-Hudson, an excellent idea.

Nicknamed "ban the box" - as in the box on a job application that asks if the applicant has ever been convicted of a crime - the bill would prohibit prospective employers from asking about past convictions until after a position has been offered to the individual.

In other words, applicants would first have to be judged on their qualifications before being asked about their criminal histories.

The bill would also prevent employers from disqualifying an applicant because of a crime committed more than 10 years ago, with the exception of murder, arson, some sex offenses and terrorism.

The concept has the support, in principle, of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association.

Certainly, there are good reasons for some employers not to hire ex-offenders for certain jobs. But under this bill, at least the door would not be automatically slammed in the face of everyone who has served time in prison.

The rehabilitation of criminals is possible. It happens. And even if you are not inclined to believe that, Lesniak's bill should appeal to you on fiscal grounds alone.

Recidivism is expensive for taxpayers, and this bill offers a sensible and fair way to perhaps reduce the number of ex-offenders who become repeat offenders.