Activists, Lawmakers Push For CORI Reform
By: Michael C. Bailey
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.