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At CORI hearing, reform brought back to forefront

Yawu Miller | 2/5/2009, 7:32 a.m.

Scores of CORI reform activists from across Massachusetts gathered at the State House last week to argue for modifications to House Bill 4476, legislation filed in January by Gov. Deval Patrick that would make changes to the laws that govern the records of ex-offenders.

In a packed hearing of the state Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary — a session that included testimony on bills that would ban minors from buying violent video games and de-criminalize marijuana in the Commonwealth — it was the proposed reforms to the state’s Criminal Offender Record Information, or CORI, laws that dominated the debate.

The verdict, delivered by community activists and elected officials alike: Good, but not good enough.

“I am not speaking in support of the governor’s bill,” said state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson. “I see this as a CORI repair bill. With work, it could be a CORI reform bill, but it’s not there yet.”

The governor’s bill would allow ex-offenders with felony convictions to seal their records after 10 years and those with misdemeanors to seal their records after five years. A statewide coalition of activists seeking CORI reform wants those time periods shortened to seven years and three years, respectively.

The coalition is also calling for arrests that have not resulted in convictions to be made inaccessible to employers — many of whom, they argue, do not know how to read CORI reports and routinely deny employment to job applicants with CORIs.

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.

Wilkerson argued that the CORI laws in Massachusetts are particularly debilitating for teenagers, many of whom are unable to find work because of CORI records.

“Almost 55 percent of young people who applied for summer jobs had CORI records,” she said. “What are we saying to a juvenile who was arrested in 2000 by MBTA police, whose case was thrown out, but they can’t get their record cleared?”

State Rep. Gloria Fox said she and others are still trying to expunge the records of teenagers who were arrested by overzealous Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority officers, often for offenses as minor as trespassing.

Fox sought support for House Bill 1429, which would make it easier to purge juvenile records and remove non-convictions from CORI records.

She and other CORI reform advocates also noted that housing authorities are circumventing state law by requiring that parents give consent for them to check the CORI records of children listed on their leases.
The timing of last week’s legislative hearing, which came during the Legislature’s deadline for hearings on pending bills, has some CORI reform activists questioning the likelihood of reform happening this year.

State Rep. Eugene L. O’Flaherty, chairman of the judiciary committee, is widely seen as being unsupportive of reforms to the CORI law. For the past several years, CORI reform bills have died in the House committee after O’Flaherty reported them out, either favorably or unfavorably.

But activists say they will continue to fight for reform.

Horace Small, executive director of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods, said the Massachusetts Alliance to Reform CORI will try to pass anti-CORI discrimination ordinances in Massachusetts cities, similar to the Boston ordinance barring companies that discriminate against ex-offenders from doing business with the city.

The issue of discrimination against people with CORIs ultimately affects the whole state, according to Fox.

“Three million people are living with a CORI in Massachusetts that stops them from living a life that you and I would consider happy and successful,” she said.