Here at WGBH News, we’ve been revisiting old laws that went on the books with a measure of hype, asking whether they’re working out the way they were supposed to. We’re calling the series “Law and Effect.” In our latest installment, amid an ongoing push for criminal justice reform on Beacon Hill, we’re sizing up a 2010 law that reformed the state’s criminal records system. Click on the audio player above to hear the radio version of this story.
It’s a dreary spring morning in Worcester, but at a makeshift office in the gritty Main South neighborhood, the mood is upbeat. Two activists with the group EPOCA — that’s Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement — are helping an older woman seal her criminal record.
“All right, so I don’t have to go in front of a court?” the older woman asks.
“Not with that form, nope,” one of the activists replies. “You mail that in, mail it to the address — Ashburton Place — and then you just sit back, and chill out ’til they send you the approval.”
Afterwards, she doesn’t share her name. But she talks a bit about why she’s cleaning up what’s known as her CORI, which is short for Criminal Offender Record Information.
“I’m retired, and I want to look at some volunteer positions that the CORI might come up, and then they might not let me do things like that,” she explains. “Like in a hospital or something like that.”
For years, advocates have said the criminal justice system makes it too hard for people with a record to find work and resume ordinary life. Seven years ago, then-Governor Deval Patrick signed a bill aimed at changing that.
“What we do with this bill,” Patrick said at the time, “is reaffirm an old idea, inherent in our American character, that everybody deserves a second chance.”
The 2010 CORI reform law barred employers from asking about criminal history on job applications — the so-called “ban the box” provision. In Worcester, after she’s finished helping that EPOCA client, activist Cassandra Bensahih says that was a big deal.
“Your application ended up in the trash can,” Bensahih recalls. “No one got in the door to sell their self; no one got to meet you face to face; no one got to judge who you are, or to talk about evidence of rehabilitation even. So we wanted to be able to present our self, and our best self, not the worst to start off with, you know?”
The law also created a new, online criminal records system available to employers statewide — an attempt to reduce private records checks, which can be unreliable — while simultaneously limiting disclosure. After five and 10 years, respectively, most misdemeanors and felonies aren’t revealed to most employers.
In addition, the law made it easier to seal records, which places even greater limits on their disclosure. As a result, Bensahih says, “More people are sealing records. More people are feeling empowered to go out and get work. People are being employed, you know?”
Actually, though, it might not be quite that simple.
At the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, senior economist Osborne Jackson and his colleagues have been working to quantify the 2010 law’s impact, and they’ve reached some surprising conclusions. The good news, as they tell it, is that 2010 law has reduced recidivism, both with the “ban the box” provision and with the increased restriction on disclosure of records that took effect in 2012.
The bad news, they say? Both those provisions have also reduced employment, for ex-offenders, by a small but statistically significant amount.
While they aren’t sure why, they have a theory.
“After the reform compared to before,” Jackson says, “ex-offenders might spend more time searching for jobs in better industries, jobs with higher wages.”
In other words, by making ex-offenders more optimistic about finding work, the law may also have made them more selective. (Jackson, it’s worth noting, stresses that this explanation is by no means conclusive, and requires more research to be definitively proven.)
I ran that Boston Fed theory by Pauline Quirion, who directs the CORI and re-entry project at Greater Boston Legal Services. It’s fair to say she was skeptical.
“People just want to work,” Quirion told me. “They want to move on with their lives. If they’ve done time, they don’t want to go back.”
Yet Quirion also concedes that the law isn’t working as well as she and others had hoped. Some employers still ask about applicants’ criminal histories upfront, even though that’s illegal, she says.
And, Quirion argues, the 2010 law’s provisions for the withholding and sealing of criminal records could be relaxed even more.
“Ten years is a long time to wait to get a job,” she says, referring to the amount of time after which most felony records are withheld from most employers and most felonies become sealable.
“After seven years, the likelihood of someone committing a crime who has a criminal record is the same as someone who’s never been involved in the criminal justice system.”
Currently, as Beacon Hill weighs a host of new criminal-justice reforms, there’s interest in amending CORI reform so that felony records sunset after seven years rather than 10.
In Worcester, activist Cassandra Bensahih says she’d love to see the 2010 law broadened to provide more opportunities for ex-offenders more quickly. But she also says that whether or not such an expansion actually occurs, she considers the 2010 law a breakthrough.
“Any progress in the criminal justice system being improved is a victory,” says Bensahih. “We fought six years to change this law. If 10 people are better because of that law being passed, then that’s a success.”