By now readers of this blog know that just a couple of days ago, the state of Massachusetts – through the Department of Public Utilities’ Transportation Division – pulled off the road more than 8,000 drivers for ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft. Reason: These people failed state background checks – but the worst part was that these drivers had already passed background checks run on them by Uber and Lyft. Suffice to say, a very serious problem. Continue reading
For some time now, there has been a lot of friction between the employer community in Massachusetts, and (generally speaking,) civil rights groups, over the issue of access to criminal records. Those records are maitained by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety under a system known as the Criminal Offender Records Information, or the CORI unit.
Broadly speaking, business and employers feel that they need and should have broad access to search the potential criminal records of job and housing applicants. When making these criminal records searches, employers typically like to go back many years, perhaps as many as 25 years or more. Opposing this viewpoint are civil rights groups representing ex-convicts and former prisoners, who argue that after a person is punished and pays his or her debt to society, they should be allowed to seal their criminal records and move on with their lives. Without the ability to seal their criminal records after staying out of trouble for a certain amount of time, they feel their ability to turn their lives around and start anew will always be limited, because background checks will always reveal their criminal records. Thrown into this controversy is the role of private background-screening companies, which make their money from businesses who pay them to dig way back into court records of mainly job and housing applicants. These companies have often been accused of reporting false or conflicting information about applicants to employers.
Despite all this controversy, the law governing CORI searches in Massachuetts has just been changed, and those changes took effect today, May 7 2012. As a result, if in the past you you have been convicted of a crime in Massachusetts – it could be Massachusetts OUI/DUI Driving Under The Influence of Alcohol, Massachuetts Gun and Firearms violations, a Massachusetts Assault and Battery charge, a Massachusetts drug offense, or a Massachusetts sex offense, to name a few, you should know about these new changes.
Readers of this blog know that I’ve written previously about Massachusetts CORI reform, and that I’ve advocated a balanced approach to any reform measures, preserving the privacy rights of those convicted of certain (but not all) crimes, while preserving employers’ and other organizations’ rights to legitimate criminal history data.
I believe that goal has been realized. Yesterday, August 6, Governor Deval Patrick signed into law a reform measure that many informed observers think strikes the right balance between these two competing objectives. The bill signed yesterday was a long-awaited and hard-fought overhaul of Massachusetts’ criminal records system. Notable within the measure, is a provision that appears to make Massachusetts the first state in the nation to ban the majority of employers from asking job applicants about their criminal history on job application forms. This is key, because under the previous system, most standard job applications in Massachusetts required the applicant to answer “yes” or “no” to a question that asked if they had ever been charged or convicted of a crime in this state. If an applicant who had been convicted of a crime answered “yes,” he or she was almost always immediately eliminated from consideration for the job. Hence, the system incentivized job applicants to lie, often frustrating employers and defeating the entire purpose of the law.
Under the new statute, all employers, including licensing authorities, housing providers, and volunteer organizations will have access, for a fee, to a new state database that lists only convictions or pending charges. If someone has been convicted of a felony, such as a Massachusetts drug offense, but has not been charged with any subsequent offenses, most felony convictions will be erased from the database 10 years following the completion of a sentence, and misdemeanor convictions will be removed five years after any sentence is completed. Murder and Massachusetts sex offense convictions will always appear in the database. Under the old law, felonies could be sealed after 15 years and misdemeanors after 10 years, but doing so required a court order, and those orders are difficult to get.
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.
Recently in Massachusetts, there’s been a lot of discussion and activity surrounding reform of the current CORI (Criminal Offender Record Information) law. The law was originally designed to make it much easier for employers and private citizens to obtain information about whether a given person had a criminal record. When the original CORI law was conceived, it was felt by many that too many persons convicted of crimes could too easily hide their criminal past, either following a criminal conviction of a crime with no jail time, or upon release from jail or prison. Hence, the CORI law was passed to make it much easier for persons to learn if someone had a criminal record.
But to many advocates of the present reform effort, a not-so-funny thing happened on the way to a ‘better’ system: Either too many people convicted of relatively “minor” offenses ended up with a CORI record, damaging their chances for employment and many other essential needs, or in the view of the opposing factions, the law was not strong enough to begin with. For some time now, both sides in the debate have squared off, but the issue appears to be coming to a head in the legislature.
As a columnist in the Boston Globe wrote recently, one problem complicating reform efforts, is that different people – especially employers – have different needs for this kind of information. Some need very extensive, detailed information, such as, for example, public safety employers, financial institutions or child-care providers. Other types of employers don’t typically need such extensive, detailed records. So what should any new law require – how “far” should it go in providing information about a person’s criminal past? Law-and-order types want a bill that mandates that each person convicted of any crime at all, must carry a detailed record, accessible to as wide an audience as possible. Other people 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.