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Ex-offenders learn ins and outs of CORI sealing

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When it was passed back in 1972, the state’s Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) law had two aims — making the criminal justice system more efficient and protecting the privacy of people with criminal records.

But as more and more groups have gained access to the information over the years, a CORI report has become a major impediment to progress for many ex-offenders, affecting their ability to find employment, secure housing or even move to another state.

“It is discrimination, but it’s legal discrimination,” said Northeastern University law student Makis Antzoulatos.

The information is not always a matter of public record, however — in fact, as Antzoulatos and others explained to attendees at a workshop on CORIs held last Wednesday, it can be sealed from disclosure to some organizations.

The workshop, hosted by the Union of Minority Neighborhoods, was designed to inform people with criminal records about the benefits of exercising their right to seal the information. Law enforcement agencies can still access sealed records under a court order, as can some agencies granted expanded access by the state. Records cannot be sealed on charges of perjury, bribery, resisting arrest, trafficking firearms and sex offenses that require registration, Antzoulatos said.

CORI records for misdemeanor cases that ended with a conviction or were “aged out” of the justice system cannot be sealed until 10 years after the case’s “final disposition” — meaning either the end of the court case, the completion of probation or the release from prison or parole, whichever is later, according to the Massachusetts Legal Websites Project. For felonies, the period is 15 years.

For example, people convicted of felonies who were released from prison in 2000 will not be able to seal their records until 2015. Probation violations can further extend the wait to seal records by restarting the 10- or 15-year clock.

“That’s one of the [silly] things about CORI sealing,” Antzoulatos said.

Once sealed, information contained within a CORI cannot be used against ex-offenders; if they have been convicted of felonies, they can check “no” on job applications that ask if they have, according to Antzoulatos.

Prior to that, however, there are a number of ways that their records can catch up with them.

“Everywhere you turn, there’s consequences that go well beyond jail,” Antzoulatos said.

Potential employers, for example, pose a problem because they can — and, Antzoulatos said, often do — easily misinterpret information contained in a CORI report. For example, a person caught with illegally writing a check can be charged with three crimes for that transgression — a charge for writing the check, a larceny charge for the theft of whatever was bought with the money from that check, and a fraud charge for each check written. So someone who writes three illegal checks can end up being charged nine times.

And then, “when someone looks at your CORI, they say, ‘This person has written bad checks nine times,’” which may affect their decision about whether or not to hire an applicant more than if a smaller number of charges appeared on the report, Antzoulatos said.

Antzoulatos also stressed the importance of putting pressure on employers who consistently avoid hiring applicants who have CORI reports.

“We can go to unions and say, ‘Why [aren’t] 5 percent [of your hires] people with records?’” he said.

People with CORI records can also have trouble getting subsidized housing. Antzoulatos recommended that ex-offenders appeal rejected applications for Boston Housing Authority units in which the rejection was based on CORI reviews because rules governing such hearings sometimes allow for as many as three appeals, he said.

“You can win those hearings,” he said. “Not always, but you can win.”

Workshop attendees also added their stories of how CORI records have affected their lives. Many would only speak on condition of anonymity for fear of impacting pending CORI sealing cases. One woman said that a state she is trying to move to might deny her and her son entry because the son has a criminal record.

How CORI reports can impact ex-offenders’ immigration status also came up in the discussion with Antzoulatos. The law student recommended that non-U.S. citizens check with immigration attorneys before beginning the process of sealing.

“Immigration is a crazy area of the law that, if you’re not an immigration attorney, you know nothing about,” he said.

Sean Pelzer, a senior organizer with the Union of Minority Neighborhoods, said he is conducting CORI-related outreach work targeting Boston-area youths because a bill to address juvenile CORI records is scheduled to be discussed at a conference hosted by Harvard University in October. Pelzer said his goal is to bring juveniles who may be affected by the bill to the table at the discussion because all parties involved should have a voice in the drafting of the bill.

“They’re all part of society,” Pelzer said. “They shouldn’t be marginalized.”