CORI reform law hailed by advocates

Governor Deval Patrick will sign legislation on Friday that proponents say will overhaul a criminal records system and reduce crime by easing access to jobs for former criminals.

The governor is scheduled to sign the bill on Friday at 10 a.m. at the Freedom House in Grove Hall.

“It’s going to give you a chance to get a better job, because it takes off some of the restrictions that have faced ex-offenders getting jobs,” said Lew Finfer, executive director of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network and a Dorchester activist who has been pushing the bill on Beacon Hill for years.

The bill will help reduce crime, Finfer said.

“Common sense is that if ex-offender is shut out of a job, they’ll drift to a new crime,” Finfer said.

State Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat who represents parts of Dorchester, called the legislation a “jobs bill.”

“It’s something that’s going to take down unnecessary barriers to employment,” she said.

“It’s a good beginning,” said state Rep. Marty Walsh, a Dorchester Democrat. “It’s not a message of ‘soft on crime.’ It’s about giving people an opportunity who have problems in their past and they can show if you do the right thing and become a productive member of society, we’re going to help you become even more productive.”

Under the legislation, felony records would be sealed ten years after the conviction, instead of the current fifteen years. Misdemeanor records would be sealed after five years, down from ten years.

The bill, supported by law enforcement officials like Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis and Suffolk County Sheriff Andrea Cabral, prohibits employers from asking about criminal history on applications, unless a criminal record would disqualify the applicant from the position as part of federal or state law.

Individuals with CORI records will be able to obtain free self-audits every three months to see which employers are asking for the records.

The bill also removes arrests and arraignments that did not result in convictions, though cases that have been “continued without a finding” will remain in a person’s CORI.

In an effort to draw requesters of criminal records from using private-market providers of CORI information, the system would be available for a fee on the Internet to employers, housing providers, and volunteer groups. The revenue from the fees would go towards re-entry and rehabilitation programs for ex-offenders.

The legislation was one of hundreds of bills that were sent to the governor’s desk in the last few weeks, and one of several bills to head to his office in the waning hours of the 2009-2010 legislative session.

“We were so close this time that people understood that if we didn’t get it done this time, it would have been a problem,” Walsh said.

The bill, part of a crime package pushed by Gov. Patrick, also adds gun crimes to the existing statute allowing prosecutors to seek dangerousness hearings, allowing them to hold without bail suspects deemed dangerous to the community.

Lawmakers are now turning their focus to re-election in November.

The bill is a win for Chang-Diaz, who is facing Democratic challenger Hassan Williams in a Sept. 14 primary.

The freshman senator, who running for re-election, notched several victories this year with bills dealing with foreclosure prevention and bilingual ballots.

The bilingual ballot bill, pushed by city elections officials as well as Fields Corner’s Sam Yoon when he was a city councillor at-large, requires Boston to prepare ballots in Chinese and Vietnamese for all federal, state and local elections.

The bill, which takes effect in January 2011, also calls for Chinese ballots to be transliterated by the board of election commissioners to include Chinese characters that represent the phonetic equivalent of the syllables of an English name.

Secretary of State William Galvin, the Bay State’s elections chief, has previously criticized the measure, saying it could lead to confusion at the polls and mistranslations of names, such as former Gov. Mitt Romney’s name getting transliterated into “sticky or uncooked rice.” He has also warned it could lead to lawsuits by candidates.

Bill proponents have dismissed the charges, and say the bill will lead to more civically-engaged Asian-American voters.

“Where this really changes the game is state and federal elections in 2012,” Chang-Diaz said. “It’s good because the city can plan for it and candidates can plan for it. These are the rules of the road now.”

The foreclosure prevention bill prevents tenants in “good standing” from being evicted when a building they’re living in is foreclosed by a bank and it’s not their fault.

The bill also temporarily extends to 150 days from 90 days homeowners have to come up with past due mortgage payments before a lender could require full payment of the unpaid balance. The provision is intended to give the lender and homeowner more time to work out a new payment plan and avoid foreclosure.

Another provision requires at least one meeting or telephone conversation between the homeowner and lender to discuss an alternative to foreclosure.

Under the bill, a new local option property tax exemption is created, allowing exempts a charitable organization that acquires a foreclosed property and plans to create affordable housing from property taxes until it rents or leases the property.

“Boston, like many other cities, has been hit hard by foreclosures over the past few years and our city’s homeowners, tenants, and neighborhoods have suffered the impacts,” Mayor Thomas Menino said in a statement. “This important legislation would lend our Foreclosure Prevention and Reclamation Initiative the additional support needed to preserve homeownership, protect faultless tenants, and stabilize those neighborhoods that have been disproportionately affected.”

Material from State House News Service was used in this report.