BOSTON — The Massachusetts House is expected to debate and vote on a proposal to overhaul the state’s criminal records system Wednesday. It’s a bill that would change the Criminal Offender Record Information — also known as CORI laws.
The bill would bar employers from asking about criminal histories on job applications, and it would shorten the time frame that records are active. Felonies would stay for 10 years, and misdemeanors for five.
This measure does not affect sex offenders or murderers because their records are handled in a separate system.
The CORI bill is expected to pass, but that may not be the end for people with CORI problems.
A Permanent Trail
“You know, turns out because you have CORI, you couldn’t get jobs.”
CORI is information that follows one through the criminal justice system and beyond. Arrest records, convictions, dismissals — even not guilty verdicts. It’s essentially a permanent record.
Cassandra Ben Sahih, a mother of four who spent time in prison on drug charges, found out about CORI the hard way.
“I guess I was surprised to find out a what a CORI was cause I really didn’t know,” Sahih said.
When she left jail, Ben Sahih realized there were things she could not leave behind, as she said at a State House rally earlier this month.
“When I went to look for housing. I started receiving those rejection letters,” Sahih said. “You know, turns out because you have CORI, you couldn’t get jobs.”
Now, jobs are the key part of the proposed CORI system overhaul — because the bill limits when and how employers can access criminal records.
David White, a criminal defense attorney in Boston and a leading advocate of CORI reform, says it doesn’t make sense for offenders to be saddled with permanent criminal records that can keep them out of jobs, housing and more.
“The clergy and elected officials all standing there were all of one accord, talking about crime and reform.”
“Statistics show that if someone has been free of any criminal activity for seven years, that person is as likely to re-offend as someone who has never offended in the first place,” White said.
White said information and how it’s used is at the heart of reforming the Massachusetts system.
“Does that criminal background really affect their qualification for the job that the person is seeking?” White asked.
Oftentimes, he said, it doesn’t. “An offense that occurred while the person was still in high school is probably something the employer does not have to worry about in terms of job performance and safety,” White continued.
In the past, the chief opponents of efforts to change CORI were some enforcement officials. But now, many are behind this bill.
Sheriffs, police chiefs and prosecutors held a news conference in support of reform at the State House.
Rep. Gloria Fox has been working on CORI since the early 1990s.
“I’m telling you, I was misty. I was misty,” Fox said, speaking of renewed CORI reform efforts. “The clergy and elected officials all standing there were all of one accord, talking about crime and reform. I mean, I’m aflutter.”
The public support of law enforcement and elected officials should help CORI reform pass.
Beyond Public Records
“The data industry is really is really good about getting the genie out of the bottle.”
At the end of the day, however, the Legislature can only try to control information, said privacy expert Chris Hoofnagle.
“The data industry is really good about getting the genie out of the bottle, of finding was to suck all the data out of the system,” Hoofnagle said. “And once they have it, it becomes very hard for the government to come along and say you can’t use it or you have to delete it.”
Hoofnagle, who teaches at the University of California at Berkeley Law School, said criminal records just have a way of sticking around, regardless of changes to the official criminal records system.
He said employers, landlords and anyone who uses private companies can still end up getting old, outdated and sometimes inaccurate information about criminal records.
“Those really are kind of a permanent record. And states attempt to limit their distribution haven’t been very successful,” Hoofnagle said.
But Hoofnagle says Massachusetts and other states should still try.