Massachusetts House Passes CORI Reform: Tough On Crime, Or Not Tough Enough?

This past Wednesday night, the Massachusetts House voted, 138-17, to approve legislation that would both reduce the waiting periods now required for sealing criminal records from public view, and prohibit employers from asking job applicants about prior criminal records on initial job application forms.

As my readers know, I’ve blogged previously about CORI reform efforts in Massachusetts. As I’ve said in this blog and elsewhere, a big problem complicating reform efforts in this area of Massachusetts criminal law, is that different people – especially employers – have different needs for this kind of information. Some need very extensive information, such as public safety employers, financial institutions or child-care providers. Other types of employers don’t typically need this kind of detail. Strict law-and-order advocates want each person convicted of any crime at all, to be required or produce a detailed record. Others feel that someone who has been found guilty of a relatively minor offense should not have to carry a “Scarlet Letter” for that offense, potentially foreclosing a number of opportunities for them in the future.

The legislation passed by the House the past week, would change present law to allow sealing of felony crime records 10 years after sentencing for an offense, instead of the current 15 years. The bill’s advocates argue that it will reduce barriers to jobs and housing now faced by hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts residents with prior criminal records. The House bill would also permit sealing of misdemeanor convictions from public view, such as Masschusetts assault and battery, or simple assault after five years, versus the current 10-year waiting period. House Judiciary Chairman Eugene L. O’Flaherty, D-Chelsea, said the intent of the current measure, the product of several years of legislative work, is supported by national studies that show that convicts who remain out of the criminal system for six or seven years after committing previous crimes, are less likely to re-offend. O’Flaherty and other advocates of the House bill argue that the reforms are “smart on crime as opposed to being weak on crime”, in that the reforms supposedly encourage convicts with prior criminal records to join the workforce. That may be true, but all it’s going to take to knock this argument down, is the media reporting just one Massachusetts murder or Massachusetts rape case committed by someone with a CORI who didn’t have to report a prior violent crime he or she committed because it was older than ten years, and, to be blunt, all hell will break loose.

The Massachusetts Senate is currently offering its own version of CORI reform, but its version provides for early parole for non-violent offenders now serving mandatory sentences, after they complete two-thirds of their sentences. The House version passed last Wednesday doesn’t contain this provision, which is designed to direct inmates to treatment programs after their early release. As is customary, differences in the two bills will be worked out in conference committee, before any final bill is sent to the Governor’s office. For the record, however, three points about the House version: 1) Police departments would continue to have immediate access to all criminal records of any kind; 2) Crimes involving Massachusetts murder or manslaughter would not be subject to sealing; 3) Massachusetts Sex offense records could not be sealed and would remain accessible to the general public.

Regardless of what comes out and is finally enacted into law, it will hopefully be a balanced approach to providing employers and the public with the information they need about someone’s prior criminal history, as well providing persons convicted of certain crimes with ability to begin anew without being “marked for life.” To give readers an idea of just how many people could be affected, a recent Pew Charitable Trust study indicates that one in 24 adults in Massachusetts, or more than 200,000 people, were either in jail or on parole or probation in Massachusetts at the end of 2007. If that’s not enough, even higher numbers than that are estimated to have older criminal records that would affected by the legislation.