'A second chance'

Associated Press | 8/11/2010, 7:12 a.m.

Patrick signs law overhauling criminal records system; activists say it’s a good first step

Gov. Deval Patrick meets with reporters outside the Freedom House in Roxbury after signing into law legislation that overhauls the state’s criminal records system.  (Tony Irving photo)

    Surrounded by elected officials and community leaders, Gov. Deval Patrick signs the CORI Reform Bill into law at a packed Freedom House in Roxbury. Members of the Boston Workers Alliance celebrate outside of their office in Roxbury after the Massachusetts Legislature passed the CORI Reform Bill last month. (Ernesto Arroyo photos). In the bottom photograph, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino gets a hug from community activist Horace Smalls as Boston City Councilor Stephen Murphy looks on. (Tony Irving photo)

For longtime community activist Haywood Fennell Sr., watching Gov. Deval Patrick sign a bill last week to reform the state’s criminal records system was a bittersweet moment.

For the last 13 years, he and other members of the Stanley Jones Clean Slate Project have held meetings, lobbied elected officials, marched and prayed. Fennell even remembers the efforts of former state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson to get public discussions on CORI reform at a time when most politicians believed they had to be “tough on crime.”

“Many times people did not believe it would ever happen,” Fennell wrote in an email. “But we did.”

So did Gov. Patrick. In a jam-packed event at the Freedom House in Roxbury, Patrick enacted what he touted as a “strong anti-crime” law that will expand job opportunities, reduce recidivism and combat illegal gun possession.

“What we do with this bill,” Patrick said, “is reaffirm an old idea inherent in our American character, that everybody deserves a second chance.”

The new law sharply reduces the amount of time most crimes stay on offenders’ records. The changes to the so-called CORI system will also prevent employers from asking about arrests or convictions on job applications.

Under the new law, felony convictions will be available for 10 years and misdemeanor convictions for five years, as long as there are no subsequent offenses. Under the old, those convictions would remain for 15 years for felonies and 10 for misdemeanors.

Murder and sex offense convictions remain in the system permanently. Pending cases that are continued without a finding (CWOF) will be available until disposed.

The bill allows county house of correction inmates serving mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug-related crimes to apply for parole after serving half of their sentences.

As a condition of parole, the Parole Board may require enhanced supervision, including the use of a satellite tracking device. For the first time, Patrick explained, the measure will give inmates serving sentences for non-violent drug offenses an opportunity to participate in the education and training programs that reduce the likelihood of recidivism.