The Bay State Banner
By Yawu Miller

While serving his nine-year sentence for armed robbery, Rashid Hakim learned a thing or two about rehabilitation. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees behind bars.

Since being released in 1999, he’s learned a thing or two about the CORI law.

“I’ve been out eight years and I can’t find work,” said Hakim, who traveled from Worcester to Boston last week for the March for Jobs and CORI Reform.

Hakim was one of more than 1,000 activists from across the state who marched from Roxbury Crossing to the State House to lobby support for a bill that supporters say would make the state’s Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) law more fair.

The march, organized by the Boston Workers Alliance, ended at the Boston Common, where CORI reform supporters heard from city councilors Felix Arroyo and Chuck Turner as well as Cambridge Mayor Kenneth Reeves.

The marchers then visited the offices of state representatives and senators to lobby for passage of House Bill 1416.

The Public Safety Act of 2007, as the bill is called, includes an anti-discrimination measure that would ban companies from rejecting a job applicant simply because of a criminal record.

The bill would also reduce the number of years a felony stays on a person’s record from the current 15 years to just seven years. The length of time for misdemeanors would be reduced from seven years to only three.

Also included in the bill are measures that would seal all cases that do not end in convictions, require employers to learn how to read CORI records and allow judges to expunge the records of juveniles.

“Currently in Massachusetts there is no provision in the law that allows judges to expunge records,” said Aaron Tanaka, an organizer with the Boston Workers Alliance.

Tanaka says many teenagers are hit with minor charges like trespassing that stay on their records and prevent them from getting jobs.

Teenagers were among the hundreds of marchers who made their way into downtown Boston. In addition to marchers from Boston, activists were bused in from Worcester, Springfield, Brockton and Lowell.

While a bill similar to H.B. 1416 failed to pass last year, activists are hopeful that last year’s lobbying and this year’s effort will lead to substantive reform.

“I think legislators are starting to get it,” said Steve O’Neill, an organizer with Ex-prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement (EPOCA), a Worcester-based group. “They’re starting to understand the unintended consequences of the current system.”

When the CORI system was set up in the 1970s, the intention was to enable law enforcement agencies to track criminal activity. Now that employers have access to the database, ex-offenders are effectively barred from many jobs. Four out of five employers in the state run CORI checks on job applicants, up from two out of five in 1992.

According to the Boston Workers Alliance Web site, blacks with records have only a 5 percent chance of being called back for interviews when applying for entry-level positions. Blacks without records have a 14 percent chance. Whites with records have a 17 percent chance, and whites without records have a 34 percent chance.

The state currently has 2.8 million CORI records in its database.

One of those belongs to Hakim.

When he was first released from prison in 1999, he disclosed his criminal history when applying for jobs and was refused work immediately.

“I never got past my record,” he said.

Then he began lying about his record and was able to keep jobs for a month or two before being fired. That way, he was able to earn some income.

Now he works intermittently and serves as an assistant to the pastor at the Worcester Second Baptist Church.

“They make sure I eat, sleep and live and I’m able to work for humanity,” he said.

But Hakim recognizes that his way out of the CORI trap won’t work for everyone.

“Not many people can turn to the church,” he said. “Most of them go back to the streets.”