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City updates CORI reform ordinance

Martin Desmarais

Last week, the Boston Workers Alliance capped a two-year effort of working with the city that has resulted in improved Criminal Offender Record Information regulations for businesses working with the city.

Commonly known as CORI, Criminal Offender Record Information includes records and data compiled by Massachusetts criminal justice agencies about an individual’s history related to a criminal charge, an arrest, a pre-trial proceeding, other judicial proceedings, sentencing, incarceration, rehabilitation or release. CORI information is often requested when an individual applies for employment and advocates have long fought for regulations around this information to combat hiring discrimination based on prior record.

Boston has led the state in its CORI reform efforts and enacted a CORI ordinance in 2005 to ensure that the businesses working under contract with the city use fair policies throughout the hiring process related to the screening and identification of persons with criminal backgrounds. The city has a list of more than 2,300 vendors that have certified compliance with the ordinance and have contracts of more than $5,000 with the city.

Since enacting the CORI ordinance, city officials claim that Boston only does business with companies and vendors that have adopted and employ CORI-related policies, practices and standards that are consistent with city standards. The city’s Office of Civil Rights has been charged with investigating complaints of non-compliance with the CORI Ordinance.

However, advocates and organizations supporting the formerly incarcerated during re-entry into the working world and pushing to reduce recidivism rates in the state have long questioned the effectiveness of Boston’s CORI Ordinance.

The Grove Hall-based Boston Workers’ Alliance, an organization that provides free services to those in need of employment and CORI assistance, was involved in the initial push for CORI reform in Boston that resulted in the 2005 ordinance.

“When we passed CORI regulations before, we started to understand just what this reform meant and how it had an effect,” said Phillip Reason, the Boston Workers’ Alliance director of organizing. “What we learned was we needed more teeth in that bill and how that was just scratching the surface of the reform.”

The alliance has been working with the city, which has resulted in new regulations to add education, investigation and enforcement teeth to the CORI Ordinance.

According to Reason, the strength of the improved regulations is the ability to effectively track businesses’ compliance to the ordinance.

“It gives us some level of oversight with those contractors,” he said.

He called city’s increased emphasis on the CORI Ordinance a more “systemic approach” to reform, and one that will give those with CORI barriers real opportunities to find work without being hindered by their past record.

The Boston Workers’ Alliance as well as other groups involved in this push with the city — including the Union of Minority Neighborhoods, Stanley Jones Clean Slate Project, Mass Law Reform Institute, Greater Boston Legal Services, MassUniting, SEIU 1199 and STRIVE — seek changes to employment policies for business and vendors that work with the city to ensure that they do not discriminate at the entry level or the beginning of the application process based on CORI.

“That is probably, for me, the strongest step forward in terms of hiring policy that we can do in terms of folks dealing with CORI issues,” said Reason.

While Boston has led the way in the state with its CORI regulation efforts, Worcester is another city that has also enacted an ordinance. Worcester passed its CORI ordinance in 2012 and it was modeled after what Boston has in place.

Steve O’Neill, executive director for interstate organizing for Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement, said he supports any efforts to strengthen the enforcement efforts of CORI regulations.

“What the Boston Workers’ Alliance has done in Boston is really important because you really do have to follow up and see that the city agencies that are supposed to be carrying this stuff out are doing what they are supposed to do,” O’Neill said.

Even with a CORI ordinance in place, O’Neill said there is always a question about whether or not businesses or vendors that don’t adhere to the regulation are really kept from city contracts.

As a state, Massachusetts enacted significant CORI Reform in 2012, which changed who has authorized access to CORI and how CORI is accessed. Reform advocates began working with Boston at that time to examine how the state law would impact the 2005 Boston CORI Ordinance and make improvements.

Reason credited the Walsh administration for picking up speed on these efforts since the start of the year.

“We are grateful that the Walsh administration picked the ball up and moved relatively quickly,” he said. “We kind of felt like people were dragging their feet a little bit before.”

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