Boston Bulletin

By Justin Rice

Upon his release from prison two years ago, Dennis “Rocky” Jackson tried to find a job.

“Nobody called me back because everybody checks your CORI,” Jackson, who is homeless, said last Thursday. He had just signed a petition at the Roxbury Crossing MBTA station before more than 1,000 protesters marched to the State House�s Grand Staircase, where they asked the legislature to support changes to the Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) system.

The march was organized by the statewide grassroots economic justice organization, Neighbor to Neighbor, which argues that CORI checks create insurmountable obstacles for people trying to obtain jobs, housing and acceptance into educational programs.

“Our organization has hundreds of members who are playing by the rules but can’t get jobs to support their families and are left living in poverty,” Wilnelia Rivera, organizer with Neighbor to Neighbor Massachusetts, said. “Denying people the opportunity to work does not decrease criminal behavior. You can have a CORI for writing a bad check and never be able to get a job because some companies have blanket policies of not hiring anyone with a CORI record, regardless of the job or the reason for their CORI.

House Bill No. 1416, sponsored by State Rep. Michael Festa (D-Melrose), is before the State Legislature�s Judiciary Committee and is due for a hearing in June. It would reform the CORI system to make it easier for people with CORI records to gain employment and housing. The bill would also provide training for those with access to CORI records on how to read them. CORI information would still be available to law enforcement and agencies where workers are in contact with children, the elderly and other vulnerable populations. There would be no change to procedures related to the sex offender registry.

At-large City Councilor Steve Murphy of Hyde Park authored a CORI reform resolution two years ago that included an amendment on “cross identity” to make sure that crimes on file were substantiated by fingerprints and that the crimes weren’t dismissed or dropped or that the defendant was never found guilty. He also wants to reduce the amount of time a crime would stay on a CORI record from 15 years to seven for a felony and from 10 years to five for a misdemeanor.

“There were four reforms that, basically, very few people have argued with as kind of the bedrock CORI reform needed to be reformed right away,” Murphy said. Nevertheless, the resolution failed to pass. “It stalled in the legislature last year. Basically, 37 different bills’ some strengthening, some weakening CORI laws, were filed. We couldn’t get through the House committee.” Murphy said he refiled legislation last January and had the resolution reassigned to the Joint Committee On The Judiciary, chaired by State Rep. Eugene L. O’Flaherty (D-Malden).

Murphy, who was unable to attend last week’s rally because he was out of town, is confident that legislation will pass this time. Murphy said Gov. Deval Patrick - who has said he supports reforms but hasn’t proposed any changes-will unveil a CORI reform package in the next 60 to 90 days, if not sooner. Patrick met with Festa the day before last week’s rally to discuss the issue.

“The rally re-ignites people,” Murphy said. “There are passionate people that believe there needs to be reform. There’s a great deal of skeptics. Law enforcers differ in view points and persuasion on this thing. That�s all the more reason why it’s important for public displays to augment the viewpoint that, in fact, there are real people suffering out there because these laws haven’t been changed.”

What changed between 2006 and 2007 is that we have a favorable governor,” Murphy added. “We had a governor who opposed it, now we have someone who is sympathetic. I believe some of the problems we�re having in Boston neighborhoods is of a CORI nature.”

At last week’s event, more than 150 Neighbor to Neighbor members rallied alongside hundreds of participants from groups like the Ex-Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement (EPOCA).

“This is about people who are continuing to be punished long after they have served their time and are no more likely to engage in criminal behavior than the general public,” said James Cain, EPOCA president. “And it’s not just about people who were convicted. People who were found innocent have CORIs. People have CORI records because of errors in the system or because they have a name similar to someone else with a CORI. As a result, none of these people can get jobs and housing.”

Neighbor to Neighbor argues that thousands of low-income families are adversely affected by the current CORI system, which was originally designed only for law enforcement use. They argue that it is written in a complicated legal code that is difficult for an untrained eye to fully understand.

More than 10,000 groups have access to the 2.8 million CORI records in the state�s system. Due to the expanded access, Neighbor to Neighbor maintains that records are available to people who don�t understand how to interpret them and, as a result, people who are not likely to re-offend suffer.

“The overuse and misuse of CORI information traps tens of thousands of Massachusetts families in poverty,” Doris Tosado, Springfield member of Neighbor to Neighbor, said. “CORI is not tough on crime or criminals. It is tough on people who are trying to work and support their families.”

Held during school vacation week, the rally was also attended by many local youths, including Carlos Moreno, 19, of Dorchester.

“We’re here basically trying to give opportunities to those who made mistakes in life,” Moreno said. “They say your past is what makes your future. If you make mistakes in the past, is that what makes your future? If you make mistakes in the past does that limit your opportunities in the future?”

- The Bulletin Newspapers