Gov. Deval Patrick signed legislation Friday to overhaul the state's Criminal Offender Record Information system, which the governor and prisoner advocates say will help thousands of former prisoners in their often difficult quests to obtain jobs.
The new law sharply reduces the amount of time most crimes stay on offenders' records. The changes to the so-called CORI system will also prevent employers from asking about arrests or convictions on job applications.
The legislation has long been sought by prisoner advocates, and it won a prominent backer in 2007 when Patrick took office. Both argue that lingering records make it difficult for the 97 percent of convicts who are released from prison to move on with their lives and get jobs after serving their sentences.
"I really appreciate the fact that the Legislature has stepped up and passed a bill that folks have been advocating for, for a very long time," Patrick said earlier in the week.
Patrick said the legislation is a jobs bill "because it is about enabling people who have records to get back into the work force."
Prisoner advocates said sealing of records sooner will enable more ex-offenders to secure employment.
"This is really significant in terms of people knowing that if they committed one offense, it won't live with them forever," said Lew Finfer, a spokesman for the Commonwealth CORI Coalition. It represents over 100 community organizations and labor unions who pushed for the bill's passage.
Under the compromise bill passed at the end of the Legislature's session July 31, felony convictions for those who don't re-offend would be sealed after 10 years, instead of the current 15. Misdemeanor convictions would be sealed after five years, instead of 10. Convictions for murder and serious sex crimes remain in the system permanently.
In addition, employers cannot ask job applicants about their criminal background on written applications, but can pose the question during job interviews.
The Rev. Jeffrey Brown, the executive director of the Boston TenPoint Coalition, said the "ban the box" provision will help former prisoners get further in the job application process.
"Previously, if you checked the box, the employer would throw the application away or set it aside because of the stigma attached," Brown said. "Now, employers can get to know individuals, which gives them the chance to explain themselves and explain their lives."
Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino also praised the newly signed law.
"It's about helping people who make mistakes and pay their debt and become positive and productive members of our community," Menino said. "The days of receiving a life sentence for one mistake are over."
But Republicans, all of whom voted against the final bill in the House, said the measure is soft on crime. House Minority Leader Rep. Bradley H. Jones Jr., who voted for the original House bill, said the compromise bill was rushed through the House and does not do enough to support newly released prisoners.
"When we are liberalizing the way we are doing things, we should proceed more incrementally," he said.
The North Reading Republican also said he was concerned that the legislation allows Level 1 sex offenders — the least dangerous — to have their records sealed after 15 years. And he complained it also makes changes to minimum mandatory sentencing laws.
The bill allows county house of correction inmates serving mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug-related crimes to apply for parole after serving half of their sentences. Jones said the House did not get the chance to debate changes to sentencing laws.
Supporters of the sentencing change say it will help the state save money, because the cost to supervise a person post-release is $2,500 a year. The average annual cost to incarcerate is $43,000.
The sentencing provision was weaker than the original Senate bill, but Sen. Cynthia Creem said the measure is a first step toward allowing some offenders to achieve parole sooner and the first serious reform of mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
"This bill is about jobs and getting people back into society in a meaningful way," said Creem, D-Newton.
This program aired on August 6, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.