Friday, February 19, 2010
Don't block reformed criminals' job efforts

THE UNEMPLOYMENT rate in Massachusetts hovers at 9 percent. In urban neighborhoods across the Commonwealth, that rate is sometimes more than double, with some estimates as high as 24 percent. These numbers have an obvious and painful impact on the economic stability of a neighborhood, and they also impact our safety. With more residents pushed into joblessness, and in some cases homelessness, crime rates go up in our communities. This has always been the case, but is even more so during a recession.

That’s why the Commonwealth must act now to take down unnecessary barriers to employment. That’s why we can’t wait any longer for reform of our broken CORI system. The CORI system (“Criminal Offender Record Information’’) was created in the first place to keep our communities safe. The problem is the current system is failing to meet that end.

In addition to blocking dangerous individuals from working with populations we want to protect, it’s also blocking greater numbers of safe, reformed, and hard-working individuals from supporting themselves and their families. Employers who see the “CORI box’’ checked off on a paper job application look no further; the application goes in the waste basket - no matter if, for example, the offense was a minor drug possession 10 years ago when the applicant was 19 years old.

Blocked at every turn from employment, housing, and education, many residents are pushed back to crime as the only pathway available to them. And that means greater risk for all the families, local business owners, and neighbors surrounding that person. It also means greater risk to taxpayers, who will pay the $40,000-per-year cost of incarcerating him or her.

A solution is completely within our reach. Last fall the state Senate passed legislation to fix our broken CORI system and ensure that we’re spending taxpayer dollars more effectively. Governor Patrick has expressed his strong support. But the bill has to pass the House of Representatives in order to be put before the governor for his signature. In particular, the reform package:

■“Bans the box,’’ preventing employers from placing a question about criminal records on initial job applications, but allowing inquiries later in the process. It also streamlines the process for businesses, housing providers, and other users who make CORI inquiries for a fee, putting the whole system on the Web and making it accessible more rapidly, with a few keystrokes.

■Improves the accuracy of the system by requiring employers to provide a copy of any CORI report to an applicant before questioning him or her on it, or before rejecting them.

■Reduces the look-back period from 15 years to 10 for felonies, and from 10 years to five for misdemeanors. (Homicides remain visible on a person’s CORI permanently, and sexual offenses remain as long as an offender has a duty to register with the Commonwealth, or for 15 years - whichever is longer.)

■Maintains full access to anyone’s CORI for law-enforcement agencies, even sealed records.

These reforms will make our neighborhoods safer by giving people a realistic pathway to positive employment and thus reducing recidivist crime. They will also strengthen our economy by helping people get back to work. And they’ll help all taxpayers by shifting public safety dollars away from ineffective revolving-door models in our criminal justice system - making more resources available for public safety measures that we know work, like youth programming, substance abuse treatment, and community policing.

Shifting political winds should not stop us from completing this important work for the Commonwealth. It is too valuable. Safe neighborhoods, job growth, and efficient use of taxpayer dollars. This year of all years, what time is there to waste in achieving these goals?

Sonia Chang-Díaz is the state senator for the Second Suffolk District and the Reverend Jeffrey Brown is the executive director of the Boston Ten Point Coalition.