BOSTON Three million names have been entered on the state’s Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) registry since the first law took effect in 1972.
The primary qualification for being on that list is that you have appeared in court, before a judge. A conviction is not necessary. And once your name is there, it’s not removed. Employers have used it to screen out potential employees.
Gov. Deval Patrick signed into law legislation reforming CORI one year ago. It was welcomed as a major effort to remove roadblocks for ex-offenders trying to get their lives back on track.
The first phase of the law prohibits most employers from inquiring about criminal history on job applications, and one company in Jamaica Plain has a history of hiring people with CORIs.
Brian Marsh, 42, is one of the people whose name is on the state’s CORI registry.
“I was incarcerated. I had drug charges, for sales, and I did almost three years,” Marsh said.
“These guys come out and they have no place to work and so they fallback into the same thing, so here they come in. Their probation officers come in and check — they’re like, ‘Beth, you’ve saved this young man’s life.'”
Today Marsh is one of the more fortunate ones. He has a job at Roxbury Technology, a minority owned business in Jamaica Plain which prides itself on hiring ex-cons.
Tom Dibenedetto, 40, who served 14 years for armed robbery, works there too.
“Very few companies are willing to give people such as ourselves a chance. But we are being released back to the communities and we do need these opportunities because we need to support ourselves, we need a roof over our head, and food in our refrigerators just like every other human being does,” Dibenedetto said.
Roxbury Technology recycles and re-manufactures toner cartridges for printers and fax machines. Its biggest customer is the giant office supplier Staples.
Roxbury Technology’s President and CEO is Beth Williams, who cut her teeth in the business world working as an executive at Raytheon and Blue Cross. She took over the company when its founder, her father, died in 2004.
Giving a second chance is a company mission.
“I’ve honestly believed, just like we give products a second chance, a second life, people need a second life,” Williams said. “These guys come out and they have no place to work and so they fallback into the same thing, so here they come in. Their probation officers come in and check — they’re like, ‘Beth, you’ve saved this young man’s life.’ I think it’s essential, I mean, about 10 percent of my workforce I would say has a CORI.”
It’s worked out for her. The quality of the work, she said, is excellent.
“I tend to find that those employees are the ones with the most gratitude,” Williams said. “They’re not the ones who come in complaining and griping, and that they’re very…they want to try, they want to really try to make it work and they’re thankful they’ve been given another opportunity, because they go so many places and once people see that they have a CORI, they get the polite rejection.”
Polite rejection — that’s supposed to be harder to do now that Massachusetts has reformed its CORI law.
But Horace Small, executive director of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods — part of the coalition that fought for CORI reform — said it is happening.
“Businesses have found loopholes, things are falling through the cracks,” Small said. “People come in, they come in all the time, like, ‘Hey, I’m not getting an interview, I’m not being talked to.”
The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination is charged with enforcing the CORI reforms. The agency’s legal counsel, Catherine Ziehl, said it’s received only a handful of complaints since the first phase of CORI reform became effective last November.
One of the complaints was against a large employer in the state. Ziehl wouldn’t name the employer,
but said what the agency is finding is that one of the problems has been with large national employers.
“With national employers, usually there is a single application that’s used throughout the country and they’re not necessarily aware of local law,” Ziehl said. “So, that’s where we have found some issues. [We want to] make it clear to employers that any national boilerplate application form that they use needs to have specific information with regard to what does and does not have to be answered in Massachusetts.”
In the Legislature, the CORI reform fight was a long one. For years activists fought for passage of a number of different reform acts, before one finally passed last year.
Brian Gilmore is the executive vice president of the the Associated Industries of Massachusetts. His group fought long and hard against CORI reform, but today he said his group can live with it.
“We’ve compromised, we got the best solution for the issue at hand, and I am not aware of an outcry that the regulations are not workable. Business does not like regulations, like anybody else, no one likes change, but I think what we have here is workable and is a win-win for everybody.”
Marsh talks about just how important that job is.
“I’ve changed my whole entire lifestyle. I don’t hang in the street, I don’t hang at bars and clubs, I go to church every Sunday and I come to work. And I take care of my children. That’s my life now,” Marsh said. “So it’s like I’m a normal upstanding citizen now. I have a job now and I’m living in society the way you’re supposed to.”
The second phase of CORI reform, which includes the sealing of criminal records, becomes effective next May. The waiting period for requesting the sealing of misdemeanors will be five years, rather than 10, and would be 10 years, rather than 15, for most felonies. Murders and sex convictions will always be in the database.