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Patrick announces bill, order to reform CORI

Yawu Miller | 7/27/2009, 5:13 a.m.

Gov. Deval Patrick last week announced a bill and an executive order, both aimed at stemming what some have called excesses in the state’s Criminal Offender Records Information (CORI) law.

Patrick’s bill would reduce the amount of time ex-offenders would have to wait to have their records sealed and remove barriers to state agencies seeking to hire job applicants with criminal records.

“CORI was never intended to turn every offense into a life sentence,” said Patrick in a statement announcing the proposed reforms. “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 are necessary to make it possible for ex-offenders to find gainful employment.

“This moves the reform process forward,” said City Councilor Chuck Turner. “But it’s not as much as we wanted.”

As it stands, according to Wilnelia Rivera, an organizer with the statewide grassroots organization Neighbor to Neighbor Massachusetts, CORIs are “like scarlet letters that marginalize” ex-offenders by preventing them from accessing employment and housing opportunities. Her organization says individuals who were found innocent or against whom charges were dropped should not have CORI records.

“This is a significant step towards opening the door … for people with CORI records, but much more work needs to be done,” said Rivera in a statement.

Patrick’s bill would allow ex-offenders to have their records sealed after 10 years for a felony conviction or five years after a misdemeanor, down from the 15 years and 10 years currently called for by state law.

Activists working with the Boston Workers Alliance (BWA) and the Massachusetts Alliance to Reform CORI (MARC) called for the waiting time to seal records to be reduced to seven years for felonies and three years for a misdemeanor.

Patrick’s proposed changes to the state’s CORI law are more modest than those called for in House Bill 1416, a reform package endorsed by MARC and the BWA, as well as black elected officials and Mayor Thomas M. Menino.

Calling the governor’s announcement “promising,” Menino lauded the bill’s provision for “a more comprehensive way to approach re-entry” and expanded opportunities for ex-offenders to verify the accuracy of their reports. He did, however, emphasize his support for other related reforms.

“As the Legislature considers this important issue, I hope that they will also consider the needed training and education eliminated from prison programs over the past decade, and that they will add provisions that serve juveniles as well,” said Menino in a statement.

MARC founder Horace Small, executive director of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods, said his organization views Patrick’s bill and executive order as initial steps.

“A lot of people are asking why did we push for an executive order,” Small said. “It’s a simple reason: to save the movement. After two years of lobbying, we knew the Legislature wasn’t going to budge. We understood that if we didn’t come out with anything, we’d start losing people.”

In 2006 and 2007, activists from across the state marched on the State House, held rallies on Boston Common and lobbied legislators to support House Bill 1416. But the bill has been held in the Joint Committee on the Judiciary by its chairman, state Rep. Eugene L. O’Flaherty, D-Chelsea, who has been cool to CORI reform.

In addition to shortening the waiting time for sealing records, the provisions in House Bill 1416 would seal records of arrests that did not end in convictions; seal juvenile records; and create clear procedures for people to appeal mistakes on their records. The bill would also make 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.

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.

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. “The administration has found a way to create economic opportunity while protecting vulnerable populations. That is an achievement with two compelling parts.”

While Patrick’s bill leans toward incremental changes to the state’s CORI law, his executive order brings major changes to the way the state uses CORIs.

Patrick’s executive order governing state hiring policies would bar state agencies from considering an applicant’s criminal record for a job unless an applicant is determined to be qualified for a job and the content of a criminal record is relevant to a job.

Patrick’s executive order also directs the state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services (HHS) to revise its CORI regulations to allow job applicants with criminal backgrounds to be employed in its agencies and in vendor programs that receive HHS funding.

Under the administration of former Gov. Paul Cellucci, HHS and its vendors fired many outreach workers who had criminal records in 2001.

That same year, Turner and other activists were arrested during a sit-in protest the HHS regulations.

“People were being fired from jobs they had been working in for years,” Turner said.

Another provision in Patrick’s executive order directs the Criminal History Systems Board (CHSB) — a body created to oversee the use and maintenance of the state’s CORI records — to require employers to undergo training and pass a written examination on how to properly read a criminal record as a requirement for obtaining or renewing certification to access the records.

The CHSB is also directed to study the cost of updating the procedures for sealing and correcting CORI reports. Now, sealing CORI records requires the approval of a judge and can take years, even if the record exists as the result of a clerical error.

The CORI reform movement has scored minor victories in recent years, with the cities of Boston and Cambridge enacting laws barring contractors doing business with them from discriminating against job applicants on the basis of an arrest record.

Small says MARC will push for more cities to adopt similar measures, in addition to continuing the push for passage of House Bill 1416.

CORI reform activists are also planning to work more closely with youth groups to push for the sealing of juvenile records, beginning with a Jan. 23 meeting in Boston.

“Kids are still being denied jobs,” said Small. “This can’t continue.”