Menino, officials give push to CORI reform

Working to build momentum behind an issue that could prove politically dicey, elected and grassroots proponents of restricting employers’ access to the criminal records of job applicants said Tuesday the time is right for their perennial efforts to gain traction in the Legislature.

“You need to convince your legislators that this is the most important piece of legislation in front of us this [coming] month,” said Rep. Elizabeth Malia, co-sponsor of legislation that reduces the window for employers’ full access to criminal records.

At a State House press conference attended by more than two dozen Democratic lawmakers, Patrick administration Public Safety Secretary Kevin Burke, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, AFL-CIO president Robert Haynes, and more than 100 people holding signs, wearing T-shirts, and chanting, legislative and administration officials said the changes could gain enough momentum to make it through the process this year.

Speakers at the rally said changing the rules would serve both economic development interests and answer questions of fairness, holding up long-ago or minor crimes as examples of infractions that should not impede access to jobs or housing.

Employers have argued against various efforts to reform the state’s criminal offender record information system (CORI) because they find the proposals intrusive and likely to leave businesses open to major liability charges. Patrick last week identified the issue as one of his next legislative priorities.

Malia (D-Jamaica Plain) and Sen. Harriette Chandler (D-Worcester) have filed legislation (H
3523/S 1608) cutting the waiting period for sealing CORI records to three years for misdemeanors and seven years for felonies. The bill, scheduled for a hearing before the Judiciary Committee on July 27, calls for the period to begin upon release and for sealing to be postponed when court supervision exceeds the new limit.

Under the bill, employers could only view open cases and convictions on CORI reports, with exemptions remaining for law enforcement and agencies that deal with vulnerable populations.

Employers would have to wait until after the preliminary screening process before asking applicants about criminal records.

The Patrick administration filed a bill in May that would set up a new system under which employers and housing providers could access the information for a fee, estimated between $20 and $30, with some of the proceeds paying for re-entry and job training programs. The bill would also shift the CORI database to a Web format, making the legally available records more practically accessible.

Burke said Patrick wanted to remove obstacles to career advancement.

“They’ve got jobs, they’ve got housing, they’ve got health care, so we’ve got someone much less likely to reoffend,” Burke told the News Service after the rally.

Administration officials conceded Tuesday they were uncertain of the reform’s prospects, noting that lawmakers have already tackled reforms on ethics, pension, and transportation, and are approaching a period in the legislative calendar when the pace of lawmaking slows markedly. Legislators say privately they eager to wrap up budget work and head back to their districts from what has been a tumultuous six months on Beacon Hill.

Burke, though, said he saw a “revisiting” of previous CORI positions.

“If those things are going to be taken up, they’re going to be taken up prior to an election year, so now is the time to do it,” Burke said. “In the fall, I think we’ve got an opportunity to have a real good discussion and pass some of these.”

House division chair Garrett Bradley (D-Hingham) said the legislative calendar allowed for the CORI bill’s passage, and said any effort should make the records easier to interpret, allow for a removal mechanism of improperly added data, and treat carefully nuances like allowing employers access to information about certain crimes.

The pared-back waiting periods will encounter further resistance from businesses, who call
efforts to shield information about their hiring decisions an instance of government meddling.
Business lobbyists said they agreed the current system is broken and wanted to ensure that hiring officials were properly versed in how to examine the records.

Bradley MacDougall, associate vice president for government affairs at the Associated Industries
of Massachusetts, said, “Our major concern is always the issue of transparency, and that our biggest push for and in support of CORI reform is ensuring that these records that are considered public records remain intact, they don’t go stale, they are protected, and there needs to be a transparent conversation between a company and a prospective employee in order to ensure that an employer can protect their business and their employees and their clients.”

Terri Hinton, a 41-year-old Dorchester woman, said her six-year-old CORI record dated to an
“altercation” she had with her daughter, then 16, that she said resulted in an assault and battery with a dangerous weapon charge. Hinton said her record had repeatedly blocked her from employment.

“I would like to become a medical assistant,” she said. “I believe that because of my CORI, I can’t find a job as a medical assistant.”