BOSTON/Beacon Hill - Over 100 people from several area community organizations and unions gathered at the State House Steps on Wednesday to rally in support of House Bill 5004 "An Act to Improve Certain Criminal Justice Matters" (the CORI Reform Bill) which would reform the Criminal Offender Records Information system to make it easier for former criminals to get jobs in Massachusetts.
Currently, former criminals cannot get their CORI files sealed for 15 years for felonies and 10 for misdemeanors. In addition, standard job applications in the Commonwealth all have a check-off box asking applicants if they have ever committed a crime.
According to advocates, this makes it very difficult for people with criminal records to get jobs - or even get job training. This makes it far more likely, they say, that former criminals will return to crime just to make ends meet. They also point out that the system essentially targets poor communities, especially urban communities of color, where crime rates are higher as a function of poverty.
For these reasons, CORI activists have been calling on the legislature to "ban the box" and drop the number of years former criminal must wait to have their records sealed to 7 for felonies and 3 for misdemeanors. The CORI Reform Bill currently calls for 10 years for felonies and 5 for misdemeanors, and so far has kept the "ban the box" provision.
"We're very pleased that we got the ban the box content in the bill," said Aaron Tanaka, organizer with the Boston Workers Alliance, the key organizational sponsor of the bill. "If we're able to pass that provision we'd be the first in the country to take a major step towards increasing job access for those with criminal records."
The event moved quickly to allow attendees time to lobby key legislators in advance of the vote - with most speakers reflecting on their movement's success in getting the CORI Reform Bill reported favorably out of the House Judiciary Committee recently.
"Don't take lightly that you got a bill out of committee," Felix Arroyo, Jr. of SEIU Local 615 reminded listeners.
"You do know how significant this is - this bill coming out?" Horace Small of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods said to the cheering crowd. However, he cautioned, "Even if this gets done this session, we still have a lot to do.
"We're not done yet," agreed Donald Washington of EPOCA - Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement - in Worcester, "we don't want to settle for any fluff bill they may come up with.
Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner (G/R - District 7, Roxbury) summed the situation up succinctly.
"Seems like we're on the verge of another step forward," he said, referring to the CORI Reform Bill. "You and I know that it wouldn't be there without a fight on ground. 3 or 4 weeks ago it was not there. Now it's there and reported out."
Turner concluded with a broader point that raised the connection between labor issues and the criminal justice system, "This country has never had a full employment program. If we get it, then the CORI problem is solved."
Advocates will return to the State House this coming Tuesday to lobby legislators again as the bill goes to the House floor for a vote.