Activists, Lawmakers Push For CORI Reform

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By: Michael C. Bailey
Published: 04/02/10

This year may be the year Massachusetts at last overhauls its Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) system, and individuals whose lives have been negatively impacted by current CORI laws say the change is overdue.

“I know what it feels like to want to better but be denied” because of a CORI background check, activist John C. Williams said last week as a press conference in Falmouth sponsored by the Coalition for Social Justice.

Mr. Williams, a Brockton man who openly admits to his criminal past as a drug dealer and thief, now campaigns for CORI reform in the name of helping offenders who, like himself, have served their time and wish to re-enter society.

He said the state’s current CORI laws impeded his efforts to find employment following his release from jail in 2006, and many former offenders on the road to reform find themselves similarly hampered by the CORI system – a system originally designed to consolidate criminal information for use by law enforcement and justice officials and agencies.

The system was also intended to limit access to CORI subjects’ records to only those entities with a true need to know such information, but Mr. Williams said CORI now too often becomes a form of punishment that continues after the court-prescribed punishment ends, and winds up driving people trying to turn their lives around back toward a life of crime.

Statistics provided by the governor’s office indicate there is a critical window of failure between one and three years from an offender’s release from prison. About half of the 20,000 criminals released each year from Massachusetts prisons re-offend within one year of re-entering, but a person who goes three years without committing a new crime is unlikely to again resort to criminal activity.

CORI laws, according to Mr. Williams, make it difficult for people to reach that three-year threshold because so many individuals find themselves unemployable and, desperate to obtain basic necessities such as housing and food, are forced back into a life of crime.

Employers are legally forbidden from asking a job applicant about certain aspects of the criminal past, such as whether they had ever been arrested but not convicted, or was convicted on a first offense for certain misdemeanors. However, they may ask an applicant if he has a CORI entry.

According to critics, the main problems with current CORI laws are that they are unforgiving and too accessible by the general public.

The state’s Criminal History Systems Board (CHSB) retains all information on individual offenders from their arrest all the way through to the completion of parole, but a typical CORI report details only an individual’s court-specific history on any offense that is punishable by incarceration -- sometimes regardless of whether that individual was actually convicted.

By law the only individuals or organizations outside the law enforcement and criminal justice communities that may receive CORI information must show that their need to obtain a CORI report outweighs the individual’s right to privacy, e.g., a school or day care center checking a job applicant to ensure he is not a sex offender.

There are now approximately 10,000 certified CORI recipients in Massachusetts, and the CHSB processes per year up to 1.5 CORI report requests from these entities. Close to 3 million Massachusetts residents have criminal records.

Depending on the level of certification, an agency may receive a basic report detailing only pending cases and cases ending in conviction, or may receive information that includes all court proceedings, regardless of outcome, and sealed juvenile records. Children’s camps are in fact mandated by law to run CORI checks on all job applicants, and those reports include juvenile offender data.

Offenders may request that their records be sealed, and thus made inaccessible via most CORI inquiries, if the court proceedings ended in a favorable finding (i.e., a not guilty verdict) or the record has “aged out.” For felonies, a person must wait at least 15 years -- measured from the time the individual’s sentence, including parole, has been completed -- before filing a request to have his record sealed. For misdemeanors, the age-out period is 10 years.

Lawmakers have made several attempts over the years to reform CORI laws, but every proposal has failed. According to State Representative Cleon H. Turner (D – Dennis), a former police officer who supports CORI reform, State Representative Eugene L. O’Flaherty (D – Chelsea), House chairman of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, has repeatedly blocked CORI reform bills from reaching the floor for a vote.

Governor Deval L. Patrick, Senate President Therese M. Murray (D – Plymouth), and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo (D – Winthrop) all support the current reform proposal, which has yet to leave committee. That bill would reduce each age-out period by five years, and would bar employers from conducting a CORI check on an applicant until after the employer has first determined that the prospect is qualified for the job -- and only if the contents of the individual’s record are relevant to the job’s duties and qualifications.

Criminal records on sex offenses would, as with the current law, always remain open.

1 Responses to "Activists, Lawmakers Push For CORI Reform"

  1. GateHouse News Service Feb 25, 2010 CORI BILL MISGUIDED It has been three years since Deval Patrick became the governor, one of the items that topped his agenda was “reforming” Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI), claiming the existence of criminal records prevented criminals from obtaining jobs and housing, but those of us who are involved in supporting victims of violent crime argue that sealing criminal records at all provides the secrecy that only perpetuates more crimes. In 2008 and throughout his campaign, the governor announced that sex offender records would not be eligible for sealing, this was something we had hoped for and CORI activists agreed with. The governor stayed true to his word during his first two years in office, but the bill died during the last legislative cycle, along with it died the governor’s word that he would not give a free pass to those convicted of crimes against the most vulnerable. In the governor’s second filing of his CORI reform bill he decided to allow sex offenders who have been relieved of their obligation to register with the Sex Offender Registry (SOR) to have their records sealed. What he failed to address is the loophole in our law that allows judges to waive the SOR registration requirement. According to the former Under Secretary of Public Safety Kevin Burke, the change was the result of the governor wanting to be “fair.” Let’s talk about what’s fair… Every court from the U.S. Supreme court to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has agreed that the public has the right to know if a person convicted of a sex crime lives or works in their community, but the governor would rather err on the side of secrecy and create a new set of “privacy” rights to those who choose to commit a crime, than honor the decisions handed down by the courts. The CORI “reform” legislation goes even one step further and exempts the government and businesses from liability if a person hired under the new veil of secrecy commits a crime, “No employer or person relying on volunteers shall be liable for negligent hiring practices by reason of relying solely on criminal offender record information received from the department and not performing additional criminal history background checks.” So who suffers? You! And it gets better. If this law passes and you happen to be lucky enough to obtain criminal information and decide to not hire someone based on what you’ve learned, you could be brought before “The commissioner” or his designee whose new job it will be to “investigate” complaints pertaining to misuse of the public safety information and issue sanctions and penalties for “misuse,” including fines up to $5,000 for each violation. The new commissioner would also have the power to forward information for criminal prosecution if he interpreted its use to “cause a reasonable person to suffer emotional distress” and if found guilty, “shall be punished by a fine of not more than $5,000 or imprisoned in a jail or house of correction for not more than 1 year, or both”. This new law would create a new group of criminals in Massachusetts, the law abiding, and the final stage of moral bankruptcy, an all new low for even the state of Massachusetts. This bill passed the Massachusetts Senate in November and currently awaits action by the House of Representatives and is close to becoming law. We all agree that people deserve second chances, but at what cost? More than 20 other states make all criminal conviction information public, and CORI as it stands now limits the public’s access to criminal information. We should eliminate CORI all together and dedicate the resources to making sure all information is correct. If a citizen makes a request for criminal information it should be accurate and up to date, not hidden because the governor thinks he knows what’s best. Sorry governor, ignorance is not bliss and the way to stop the pattern of abuse is not to wave a magic wand and make the records disappear, just ask the family members of the victim’s of Amy Bishop. Contact your legislators and let them know that S2220 is misguided and should not be acted on.

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