Last week, Governor Deval Patrick signed the long-sought CORI [Criminal Offender Record Information] reform legislation into law. Supporters of CORI reform have been pushing for this overhaul for years, arguing that the law as it stood was untenable for those seeking to re-integrate into society upon their release from prison. Governor Patrick himself summed it up succinctly by stating: “Sentencing in the commonwealth has become about warehousing people. Once released, the misuse of the CORI system makes it nearly impossible for some people to get work, a place to live and back on their feet.”
During my years as a mayoral aide in the Greater Boston area, I saw the negative impact of the flawed CORI laws up close and personal. I had a number of grown men coming into the office, breaking down in tears due to their inability to get work, to put food on their table, to provide for their families, and to make something of themselves. These were people who had run into trouble earlier in their lives, had done their time, and now simply wanted a shot to get on the straight and narrow. Yet the economy was already sluggish and inhospitable towards job hunters without a criminal record; for those with a criminal background, the challenge became that much more daunting. For the vast majority of the folks that came to us literally begging for assistance, there was very little we could do, and it was heartbreaking.
It was also frustrating. I saw the pain, the frustration - in some cases, the humiliation - in the faces of these people, and I wondered what they might resort to if they couldn't eventually find work. Would they fall back into old, bad habits? Would they take work that wasn't entirely legal? Would they start looking for something to dull the pain? Would they eventually lash out at a society that seemed to place them in an un-winnable situation? And did this really mean that someone should essentially face a lifetime of punishment, no matter the size or severity of the crime?
The hope is that the CORI reform will address at least some of this. I haven't had the opportunity to read the fine print yet, but I've noticed that one key component of the reform is that job applications will no longer ask applicants whether they have been convicted of a felony. One imagines that answering "yes" to that question would immediately disqualify an individual from further consideration, whereas now an applicant will at least have an opportunity to explain any past legal issues in the context of a face-to-face interview. The information will still be available to prospective employers, and serious crimes such as murder will be a permanent, prominent fixture on a person's record. This all seems like a step in the right direction, though. Once the economy starts coming back to life and the hiring process perks up, we shall see....