The BBA retains a spirit of dogged optimism as we wait for sentencing reform. With just three months left in this two year legislative session and the Senate preparing to release their budget in less than two weeks, the legislature is moving closer to meaningful sentencing reform. There have been years of protests, legislative proposals and public hearings. But the sad truth is that the current system makes it extremely difficult for former offenders to straighten out their lives.
Publicly the Governor, Senate President and House Speaker have all expressed their support for some sort of Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) reform. The Senate did so most recently in December with the passage of a CORI bill that also included sentencing law changes for non-violent drug offenders. The word is that the House will act within the next two weeks. Let’s hope that their proposal doesn’t stop at CORI reform and includes meaningful sentencing reform.
For more than 20 years the BBA has been studying and advocating on these issues and strongly believes that it’s time to finally make these measured changes a reality. We have sponsored and encouraged thoughtful study of our criminal justice system recommending changes — including repeal of most mandatory sentencing laws.
In the present fiscal crisis, their adoption would have significantly positive economic and social impacts. A combination of CORI and sentencing reform, plus post-release supervision, would accomplish cost-effective changes in our criminal justice system that enhance public safety, and facilitate offender re-entry and employment, while saving judicial and correctional resources for the most serious offenders.
Employers often use CORI reports to help screen out prospective job applicants. On one side of the debate are supporters of the current CORI law who say access is needed to protect employers from hiring someone who might be a liability to their business. On the other side of the debate are the critics who contend that the widespread use of CORI reports often prevent ex-convicts from starting over and that an individual who has already paid his or her debt to society should be given a second chance and would be less likely to re-offend if they did not have to overcome barriers to employment, housing and other services.
The CORI law was created to control the release of information concerning an individual’s prior criminal history. Initially limited to law enforcement officials, the law has been expanded to provide access to other organizations, particularly those that service children, the elderly and the disabled. Maintaining accurate CORI information is important, as these reports can include not only an individual’s prior convictions, but also any pending charges as well as cases that ended without a conviction. This can include cases where the individual was found not guilty, or the charges were dismissed. We need to find the balance between access and disclosure.
Ex-offenders, including those who have successfully completed a term of imprisonment, must be encouraged to obtain and retain productive employment. Employed ex-offenders are able to support and house themselves, rather than remain an economic burden to the Commonwealth. Right now, those with minor or long dormant criminal records confront complicated hurdles due to the way CORI records are handled when the ex-offenders seek employment or housing. The current system is confusing and complicated and some employers have access to criminal information while others don’t.
There seems to be support for some sort of CORI reform throughout the legislature. But CORI reform and sentencing reform must be viewed as interconnected parts of the solution. CORI reform is not going to be as effective if inmates serve lengthy sentences that preclude access to re-entry opportunities. Parole and work release eligibility for drug offenders would help transform appropriate candidates from expensive correctional burdens to contributing members of society.
Sensible sentencing reform must include post-release supervision, and a system of presumptive post-release supervision for all offenders incarcerated in state prison. It’s intelligent and fiscally responsible and would avoid the current practice in which offenders often are released directly to the community after serving the maximum term of their sentence, without any transitional period.
The Commonwealth is now experiencing the most severe fiscal crisis in decades and this provides us with an opportunity to enact responsible sentencing and CORI reform. Simply put, every offender who makes a successful return to the community as a result of these measures will be one less financial burden to the taxpayers of this state, and our communities will be made safer in the process.
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association