To the Editor:
Should we punish people for crimes that no longer exist? This question has arisen in states like Massachusetts that have legalized cannabis for medicinal and recreational use. As people across the Commonwealth recover from the pandemic and internalize lessons from movements for racial justice, the answer has become overwhelmingly clear: No.
Although cannabis remains criminalized at the federal level, Massachusetts has been a modern leader in liberalizing laws concerning the substance. In 2008, Massachusetts voters chose to decriminalize possession of up to one ounce per person. In 2016, we enacted controlled legalization, allowing adults to possess a maximum of one ounce on their person and ten ounces in their homes.
These victories did not occur arbitrarily. Rather, they owe their existence to decades of activism from the most impacted communities. Proponents of legalization understood that the War on Drugs was not just a policy failure, but a war on people of color.
According to the ACLU, Black people are four times as likely to be arrested for cannabis than white people in the US, even though they use the substance at roughly the same rate.
Despite our relatively progressive laws, Massachusetts does not escape this trend. In Suffolk County, for example, from 2014-2019, 50 percent of people charged with Class D possession of marijuana were Black, even though they made up under one-quarter of the population, according to the Boston Globe.
Although the most harmful rules no longer apply, their impacts are still felt. In Massachusetts, interactions with the criminal justice system are gathered in the form of a Criminal Offender Record Information, or “CORI.” For decades, a less than perfect CORI has prevented people from accessing employment, housing loans, and community engagement opportunities.
While some may argue that employers and landlords should have the right to deny opportunities to people with marks on their CORI, it is difficult to justify why people should continue to face punishment for transgressions society deems are no longer, well, transgressions.
In 2018, the Massachusetts Legislature recognized the importance of remedying this harm, enacting the “Massachusetts Criminal Justice Reform Law.” It offered a pathway for individuals to seal (hide) or expunge (erase) criminal records for offenses that are no longer crimes. With a CORI sealed, most landlords and employers are unable to see past offenses.
However, these new opportunities to seal and expunge parts of one’s CORI remain underutilized. Six months after the new system began, only 219 requests for expungement were filed.
Massachusetts’ current system places the entire burden on the individual, undermining the effectiveness of state law. The process is complicated, lengthy, and costly, disincentivizing the most impacted from completing it (even if they know it exists). Flawed and inadequate before Covid-induced court shutdowns, backlogs now present near insurmountable obstacles to unrepresented petitioners.
For these reasons, the Safety Net Project of Harvard Law School’s Legal Services Center is hosting free virtual seminars to help people seal their CORI. Our next seminar will take place on Fri., July 30, from 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Register at the link (https://bit.ly/LSCCORI) or visit our website for more information.
Harvard Legal Services Center