Opponents of the state’s criminal records system say that in Massachusetts the real punishment doesn’t begin until after a convicted offender has served his time.
Opponents of the state’s practice of making information about someone’s criminal past available to the public say the real punishment here doesn’t begin until after a convicted offender has served his or her time.
They want state lawmakers to change the system so felony and misdemeanor convictions can be sealed from potential employers’ view five years sooner.
But the debate over when a person’s past is relevant to an employer’s future is sprinkled with tough questions, and that was visible at a State House hearing Monday. Gov. Deval Patrick and several social action groups support the change. The state’s district attorneys and employer groups oppose it.
About 300 young people marched on the State House in a show of support for the bill, which was the subject of a hearing before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.
The crowd – which included the Brockton Interfaith Community and United Interfaith Action of Southeastern Massachusetts – included young people who said they were frustrated that their prior convictions or those of a family member close too many doors when they seek employment and housing.
Community organizers testified that unemployment causes many ex-convicts to return to crime, putting a bigger burden on the state’s court, prison and public assistance programs.
The Rev. Jeffrey Brown of the Boston TenPoint Coalition addressed lawmakers on behalf of the 300 young people at the hearing. Summing up their sentiments, he said, “People shouldn’t be punished for being young and foolish.”
The bill proposed by the governor would reduce the waiting period for sealing criminal records:
For someone convicted of a felony, the bill would reduce from 15 years to 10 years the time after completion of sentence when the convict’s criminal history would be available to the public.
For someone convicted of a misdemeanor, it would cut from 10 years to five years the time when CORI information would be available. After that, the person’s criminal history would be erased from view.
The bill also stipulates that sex offenders registered with the state Sex Offender Registry Board would not be eligible to have their records removed from public access.
The state’s district attorneys and business groups oppose the clean-slate movement. Plymouth County District Attorney Timothy Cruz said employers should be able to access criminal record information about people they are hiring.
He said the state’s district attorneys support more job training in prison re-entry programs – the subject of several reform proposals in front of lawmakers – but not “asking employers to put blinders on.”
“If we remove this information, it’s not making them one bit more marketable, or one bit more employable,” Cruz said.
Cruz used the example of a person who served time for larceny charges.
“Let’s say you work at a cash register, and I’m your employer and I don’t know that you stole,” he said. “I should be able to know that.”
Patriot Ledger writer Nancy Reardon is at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What is it? Massachusetts keeps a record of every criminal court appearance in a state court. That record is called a CORI, which stands for Criminal Offender Record Information.
Who has one? CORI information is kept on anyone in the state charged with a crime, even if the case is dismissed or the person is found innocent.
Some criminal records are sealed to the public after a waiting period, and that’s the issue in the present State House debate: How long should it be before such records are not available to the public?
In some cases, people can have their criminal records sealed. This applies to cases with no conviction (dismissed cases and not-guilty findings) and some misdemeanor drug possession cases.
A sealed record does not show up on a CORI request made by anyone other than law enforcement.
Who can see them? The state’s Criminal History Systems Board provides these records to law enforcement, the public and institutions such as schools, day care centers, home health aides, youth athletic leagues and municipal government agencies.
Excluding law enforcement requests, the state’s CORI unit processes an average of 100,000 requests per month.
What the reform bill would do:
- Reduce the waiting period for sealing a felony record from 15 to 10 years.
- Reduce the waiting period for sealing a misdemeanor record from 10 to 5 years.
- Makes sex offenders ineligible for sealing records if they are obligated to register with state’s Sex Offender Registry Board.