Ending the Cycle of Violence: Reforming Discriminatory Criminal Record Laws

From Issue 381 - December 2007-January 2008

Ivelisse Sanchez

The Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) system is a collection of computerized data in Massachusetts that records millions of individuals’ encounters with the criminal justice system, and is used by employers, government aid agencies, and landowners to discriminate against those who have had minor or major entanglements with the law.

On the morning of September 18, 2007, dozens of people protested in front of the Massachusetts State House demanding reform of the CORI Laws. Zakiya Alake, a community activist with both Boston’s Union of Minority Neighborhoods and Sisters United, stood on the State House steps and explained how, because of the CORI system, those convicted of crimes serve more than jail time or probation; they serve a life sentence of discrimination.

As people cheered from the crowd, the diverse demonstration was a powerful symbol of unity. The message was clear. How can we expect people with criminal records to turn their lives around when their access to housing and employment is cut short because of past offenses?

Agenda for Reducing Recidivism

A 2004 study by Lise McKean and Charles Rainsford of the Center for Impact Research, Current Strategies for Reducing Recidivism, shows that being able to obtain these necessities, and treatment for mental health and drug abuse, reduces recidivism and increases public safety. The study also presented strong evidence that suggests that three years after completing a sentence, a person’s likelihood of committing a crime declines significantly. Because of these findings, nearly a dozen organizations are standing behind MA House Bill 1416 asking for the following changes:

1. Reduce the waiting period to seal a CORI to three years for a misdemeanor and seven years for a felony (it is currently 10 and 15 years, respectively).

2. Allowing employers to check a CORI only after they have shown interest in hiring the applicant.

3. Remove non-conviction, not guilty, and dismissed cases from the CORI system.

4. Allow juveniles to have their CORI file purged by a judge.

Keeping Hope Alive

The struggle for CORI reform began to take shape in 2005 with City Councilor Chuck Turner’s District 7 Roundtable. This initiative helped highlight how unemployment due to CORIs is a systematic problem affecting inner-city areas. In April of 2007, hundreds of community members and activists led a march to the Boston Commons to protest the lack of jobs available to those with CORIs. Aaron Tanaka, director of the Boston Worker’s Alliance (BWA), believed the march gave people hope that change was possible. But keeping hope alive while maintaining political support for CORI reform remains one of the biggest obstacles for creating concrete changes. Community activists are finding politicians hesitant to back CORI reform because they fear being labeled “soft on crime.”

Though many community members may feel hopeless that reform will ever come, those who work to mobilize within grassroots organizations often feel empowered as they learn to engage the political process and become a positive representative of marginalized communities. Organizers within BWA are all volunteers from the communities predominately affected by CORI-related unemployment and discrimination. Several of these volunteers also took a five month training with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute to teach others how to seal their CORIs. This is perhaps the most significant factor in grassroots organizing on this issue: by engaging and assisting community members, they can better recruit and mobilize others to demand CORI reform.

Organizers who are actually a part of the most heavily impacted communities put a human face on the struggle and show legislators the damage these laws wreak not only on individuals, but on their families, friends, and communities.

According to Patty Katz, of the Partnership for Safety and Justice, an organization working to reform CORI-type laws in Oregon, “Over 650,000 people leave state and federal prison every year, and millions more leave local jails.” Because of concerted organizing on such laws, change is starting to come. According to the National Employment Law Project, “Several major cities across the United States (including Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, St. Paul, San Francisco, and the County of Alameda [in California]) have adopted significant new policies to limit discrimination in city jobs against people with criminal records.”

Comprehensive reform can only happen if we pressure representatives to see the detrimental effects that CORI laws, and parallel laws in other states across the country, have on people and their communities.

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