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CORI reform is needed

Andrea J. Cabral | 2/23/2010, 7:35 a.m.

CORI reform is needed

The Massachusetts Legislature will soon vote on Gov. Deval Patrick’s crime bill that contains provisions for much needed reform of the laws and procedures that govern criminal offender record information (CORI).

Since 2002, I have served as Sheriff of Suffolk County. Before that, I was a prosecutor for nearly 16 years.  Access to appropriate and accurate information about an individual’s criminal record is essential to the hiring decisions many employers must make every day.  Reform of the CORI law will provide them the tools to make those decisions fairly.  

Having worked with hundreds of crime victims, I know the exorbitant costs of crime on communities and residents throughout the Commonwealth. Perpetrators must be held accountable for their behavior. Reform of the current CORI law does not diminish that accountability.

A vote in its favor will not prevent judges from imposing punishment, nor will such a vote diminish the fact of incarceration or have any impact on the type of facility to which an offender is sentenced.  Far from being “soft on crime” a vote to reform the current CORI law is a smart, responsible way to deal with exploding numbers of currently unemployable low-risk and non-violent offenders who are draining the system of revenues desperately needed for local aid, education, health care and human services.

CORI reform will not benefit repeat offenders, especially those with violent criminal histories, nor diminish, in any way, law enforcement or court access to criminal offender record information.

Consider the numbers, costs of incarceration and the consequences of recidivism in Suffolk County alone. Our average daily population of inmates and pre-trial detainees is 2,500 with nearly 300 additional pre-trial detainees awaiting trial in state prisons across the Commonwealth.  Between 250 and 300 inmates are released each month on parole or because they have fully completed their sentences.

Ninety-five percent of the inmate population lives within five miles of the House of Correction and returns immediately to Suffolk County communities upon release.

If they re-offend, the new offense will likely be committed within Suffolk County, within a year of release and result in an even lengthier sentence of incarceration upon conviction.  It costs approximately $42,000 to incarcerate one inmate for a year.  

Through our re-entry programs, we have been able to build male and female inmates’ educational, life and job skills and help them secure employment with employers willing to hire applicants with criminal histories. In Suffolk County, we estimate that those who have been employed save the Commonwealth over $2,000,000 a year by paying taxes, reduced dependence on public assistance and by not being re-incarcerated.

Unfortunately, we do not have the resources to provide these programs to every inmate who wants to work toward a better life. As a practical matter, we cannot afford to wait until we’ve spent $42,000 a year before we deal directly with employers who can provide a way to keep offenders from falling back into criminal behavior as a way to survive.  

The impact of CORI goes well beyond those that are incarcerated. A majority of those convicted of crimes in Massachusetts never see the inside of a correctional facility — 63% of the 52,000 people convicted in 2004 were not sentenced to any term of imprisonment — yet all of them have a criminal record history that will nearly always influence whether they will even be considered for a job or a better job than the one they have.

Finally, reform of the CORI law will increase revenue to the Commonwealth in another way. As it is now, employers pay private data-mining companies to provide criminal history information for applicants. The data provided by these companies is often incomplete and inaccurate because there is no regulation or checks and balances on the information they provide.

Under the CORI Reform bill, the state will educate employers on how to properly interpret criminal history data and will charge employers a reduced rate for obtaining accurate and relevant information. The revenue generated from these payments is estimated to be between $20 and $30 million a year.

The current CORI law is unnecessarily restrictive.  It prevents appropriate access to stable employment and housing for ex-offenders and effectively eliminates their prospects for long-term success. It isn’t “tough on crime” and it doesn’t make us safer. If we don’t reform it, we will keep paying the monstrous costs of crime and incarceration until they overwhelm us.

Andrea J. Cabral is the Sheriff of Suffolk County.