New year push for CORI reform

Activists are planning on another run next year at overhauling the state's criminal offender record information system.

Saying the records are sometimes inaccurate, hard-to-read and burdensome for individuals with minor criminal records who are seeking jobs, activists will re-launch their efforts after failing again earlier this year to help individuals remove what they call a "scarlet letter" from their record.

The renewed push also comes as one of criminal offender record information (CORI) reform's top advocates was ousted out of the Senate and is now fighting to keep additional criminal charges off her own CORI. Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, a Roxbury Democrat, stepped down in November amid federal corruption charges and an election loss to challenger Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat.

"I think it's a thing whose time has come," said Suffolk County Sheriff Andrea Cabral, who hosted a forum on the subject at UMass-Boston on Dec. 13.

A former prosecutor, Cabral said public safety always is a priority, "but there needs to be a balance," since the records can potentially close doors for individuals, leaving a return to crime as the only option.

"I think there will be a re-filing of several bills," she said.

Some hope there will be an education component, saying entities like employers and housing authorities don't always know how to use a CORI record and aren't aware of the effect on a person by denying them housing or a job because of it.

"I'm really interested to see what will come of CORI reform," said Charmane Higgins, executive director of STRIVE, a Codman Square job training agency for ex-offenders. "Clearly, it's a hot button issue."

Gov. Deval Patrick filed his own version of CORI reform this year as part of an anti-crime package, saying the current CORI system "undermines public safety" in the state. But some reform advocates, including Wilkerson, said the proposal didn't go far enough and didn't address juvenile records.

A revamped version of the legislation emerged in the waning summer days of the Legislature's formal sessions, but died as a number of other bills rose to the foreground.

That bill would have allowed job applicants to not be asked about their criminal histories on initial job applications and waiting periods to seal misdemeanor and felony records would have been reduced to five and 10 years, respectively. Existing limits are 10 years for misdemeanors and 15 years for felonies.

"There was too much on the plate," said Cabral of other bills.

The fact that the bill had emerged at all from the Judiciary Committee was a good sign, reform advocates say.

"I think that bodes well for quicker action this [coming] year," said David White, a former president of the Massachusetts Bar Association who has worked on CORI reform.

A spokesman for Patrick's Executive Office of Public Safety said a crime package will be re-filed and include "some type" of CORI reform, but the proposals were still in development.

Whoever ends up filing the bills, CORI reform will again compete with a wide array of issues in the upcoming two-year legislative session, which looks to be dominated at the outset by transportation and ethics reforms, along with budgetary strife resulting from the economy in recession. The new session starts in January.

Other lawmakers will also keep taking up the CORI reform banner, White added. "There won't be lack of support from specific legislators," he said.

Specifically, CORI reform activists are looking to Chang-Diaz to aid them in their efforts.

"She's going to help us on our agenda," said Sean Pelzer, a senior organizer with the Union of Minority Neighborhoods. "She knows there's a need in the community for CORI reform to take place."

Chang-Diaz said the budget crisis, with the state's spending plan potentially sent billions out of balance, offers an opening to look at low-cost reforms such as CORI.

"It's an issue I think is hugely important for the district," she said.

Should advocates fail again, they have a back-up plan: "We'll just go back and do it again," Cabral said.

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