Hundreds of activists jam the entrance to the State House during a September 2007 rally asking legislators to change the laws that govern the Criminal Offender Records Information system. (Banner file photo)
Recent state senate passage of CORI reform legislation drew fast and furious reaction throughout the community.
The pending legislation, now awaiting a vote by state representatives in the 2010 session, would make it illegal to include any criminal history questions on applications for employment and housing; would enable criminal records to be sealed after ten years for a felony and five years for a misdemeanor; and cases “continued without a finding” that end without a problem would be defined as non-convictions and not released.
Mayor Thomas Menino has been a long-standing proponent of CORI reform. “I believe that this legislation is about opportunity — no one should receive a life sentence for one mistake,” Menino said in a prepared statement. “This bill will help law enforcement break the cycle of criminal activity by giving those who have served their time a second chance to live their lives independently and free from crime.”
The Criminal Offender Record Information law was enacted in 1972 to consolidate information on criminal offenders and make it easier for law enforcement to access that information. Over the years, state agencies, housing authorities and employers have gained access to the records.
While the intent of making access to the records was to protect employers from unknowingly hiring people with violent pasts or histories of criminal sexual misconduct, the law has effectively denied a whole class of people from employment and housing — even those with no criminal convictions.
The CORI reform coalition — which includes the Massachusetts Alliance to Reform CORI, Jobs with Justice, the Brockton Interfaith Community and the Boston Workers Alliance — wants the state to remove non-convictions from CORI records that are accessible by employers and landlords.
CORI reform activists have staged a long battle. In 2006 and 2007, for instance, activists from across the state marched on the State House, held rallies on Boston Common and lobbied legislators to support legislation then pending. But House Bill 1416 was held in the Joint Committee on the Judiciary by its chairman, state Rep. Eugene L. O’Flaherty, D-Chelsea, who was cool to CORI reform.
In addition to shortening the waiting time for sealing records, the provisions in House Bill 1416 would have sealed records of arrests that did not end in convictions; sealed juvenile records; and created clear procedures for people to appeal mistakes on their records. The bill would also have made it illegal for companies to discriminate against job applicants solely on the basis of having a record.
Under the present system, employers are able to check whether prospective employees have records when they apply for jobs. Many refuse to hire applicants who have arrest records, regardless of whether the applicant was convicted of committing a crime.
Teenagers are particularly hard hit by the law, which effectively bars many people from retail jobs, even for offenses considered minor, such as trespassing.
The recently passed Senate bill, sponsored by state Senator Harriette Chandler (D–Worcester), adopted core elements of overlapping proposals from Governor Deval Patrick, Mayor Menino, and Representative Elizabeth A. Malia (D–Jamaica Plain) as well as from the Commonwealth CORI Coalition.
Patrick’s executive order and bill draw in part from a May 2007 report cosponsored by The Boston Foundation and the Crime and Justice Institute. Entitled “CORI: Opening Doors of Opportunity: A Workforce and Public Safety Imperative,” the report recommended changes in the way CORI information is used to remove unnecessary barriers to employment for ex-offenders.
“CORI was never intended to turn every offense into a life sentence,” said Patrick in a statement announcing his proposed reforms last year. “All but a handful of people incarcerated are eventually released, and they need to get back to work. These reforms require decision-makers to make an individual determination about whether an applicant is rehabilitated, rather than excluding ex-offenders categorically. If we want to reduce crime and help people re-integrate successfully, this is a smarter approach.”
Many of those working for CORI reform hailed Patrick’s support, but stressed that more changes were necessary to make it possible for ex-offenders to find gainful employment.
Paul S. Grogan, president and CEO of The Boston Foundation, echoed the report’s findings following the governor’s announcement, highlighting the importance of removing those barriers in financially troubled times.
“In this economy, we need all hands on deck,” said Grogan in a statement issued at the time. “The administration has found a way to create economic opportunity while protecting vulnerable populations. That is an achievement with two compelling parts.”
As in Gov. Patrick’s proposal, the Senate bill also prohibits individuals convicted of murder, manslaughter or felony sex offenses from sealing their records. The 30-page package expands a nine-month minimum parole requirement to all returning state prisoners, while allowing non-violent drug offenders to gain parole eligibility after two-thirds served of a mandatory minimum sentence.
But by most accounts, the new senate bill takes a significant step forward. State Sen. Cynthia Stone Creem, who championed the provision to let prison inmates apply for parole after completing part of their sentence, said in a published interview that the entire bill would help offenders adjust to life on the streets, land jobs and stay out of trouble.
And in these tough economic times, the new bill makes good business sense. Creem told the Boston Globe that making nonviolent drug offenders eligible for early release would save the Commonwealth as much as $15 million a year.
The ACLU of Massachusetts has also fought for CORI reform and was quick to blame “tough on crime” laws and policies that have produced skyrocketing incarceration rates and longer sentences.
“Meanwhile,” the ACLU wrote to encourage reform supporters, “the CORI system keeps people locked up in the prison of old criminal records they cannot clear, long after they’ve served their time and paid their dues. If we believe in second chances, we need to abolish mandatory minimum and other sentencing laws that are too harsh, revitalize parole, and help people get back on their feet when they’re back in the community.”
Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis also said he was pleased and explained that “CORI reform will have the effect of being ‘Smart on Crime’ rather than ‘Soft on Crime’.”
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