Thanks to glitches in the state’s system for making criminal records available to potential employers, thousands of people are finding it impossible to get work
BY KRISTEN LOMBARDI
TALK ABOUT unintended consequences. In 1972, Massachusetts created the Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) Act to protect the privacy rights of people with criminal records. Under the law’s original terms, only police, prosecutors, and other criminal-justice officials, with few exceptions, could access someone’s criminal record. The exceptions included entities required by law to check these records, such as liquor-licensing commissions. In 1996, however, lawmakers amended the CORI Act to give agencies serving vulnerable populations — such as children, the elderly, and the disabled — access to the state’s CORI database. The intent was clear: by forcing employers to check the criminal record of a job applicant, workplaces would be made more safe. No one, after all, wants to see someone who has been convicted of child sexual abuse working in a day-care center. But lawmakers’ good intentions soon went awry. Today, critics charge that the CORI system is out of control. They say that too much information is released under CORI, including criminal charges that later turn out to be false or are dropped for lack of evidence. They say that some people’s records contain inaccurate information — or worse, list criminal activities perpetrated by another person who has the same name or who has used the innocent person’s name as an alias. As a result, says State Senator Dianne Wilkerson (D-Roxbury), "We have created a generation of permanently unemployable people and made them into pariahs."
Take the case of Edward Bland, a 25-year-old Springfield resident whose troubles with the CORI system began in 1995, when he was a teen growing up in the projects. One summer day, he and several friends were playing basketball when a police officer approached. The officer demanded identification from the boys, all of whom are black. So Bland, then 17, handed over his driver’s license. The cop looked at it and told him there was a warrant for his arrest. "I was like, ‘What? How could this be?’" recalls Bland, who says he’d never before had a run-in with the law.
The officer hauled Bland off to police headquarters, where they accused him of running up a record that consisted of eight criminal charges. These included three for "receiving stolen property" — a car — and two for cocaine and marijuana possession dating back to April 1994. "I told the cops I hadn’t done this stuff," Bland says, "but they said, ‘Oh, we hear that all the time.’" Police took his mug shot and fingerprints, then locked him up in a cell until his mother paid $200 to bail him out.
It wasn’t until Bland appeared at Springfield District Court the next day that he understood what was happening to him. There, he says, "people kept calling me Donald Fowler." Evidently, Fowler, a childhood friend of Bland, had used Bland’s name and birth date during an earlier arrest. So Bland’s name was listed on Fowler’s CORI as an "alias." When Bland protested that he was not, in fact, Fowler, police compared Fowler’s original mug shots and fingerprints to Bland’s. A judge later released Bland.
Still, Fowler’s record has continued to dog him. There was the time, in June 1998, when Bland applied for a job as a packer at a check-printing company. He filled out an application at the now-defunct Deluxe Check, in Springfield. Within days, however, he received notice from the company that he’d been denied the $7-an-hour job because "I had a criminal record." Then, in 2002, Bland again sought work at area warehouses and trucking companies. "Nobody was calling me back," he says. Finally, in October 2002, the US Postal Service hired him to work at an annex, in Chicopee — only to fire him two weeks later, after getting Fowler’s CORI. By this time, Fowler had racked up a six-page record detailing 27 criminal charges.
"I was heated," Bland says. "I thought, ‘I am losing jobs for this criminal!’"
And so, Bland went to the Hampden County District Attorney’s Office, where he met with Patrick Sabbs. The assistant district attorney compared the fingerprints of Bland and Fowler. In a letter dated November 18, 2002, which Sabbs gave Bland and which Bland carries everywhere, the prosecutor wrote that the "Commonwealth has determined through fingerprint examination that Edward Bland is not the person who was arrested and charged on the charges listed" on Fowler’s CORI. The first thing Bland did with Sabbs’s letter was present it to his postal supervisor, who rehired him. Yet three months later, Bland was among 20 or so postal workers who got laid off.
Today, he has come full circle. Once again, he’s seeking jobs at warehouses and trucking companies. Once again, he’s getting nowhere. Every time he fills out an application, he says, "It’s a mess." Employers who request his CORI are getting Fowler’s instead. "It’s six pages of drugs and theft. You name it, it’s in there," Bland says. Even though he’s hardly ever been in trouble with the law — once, at age 18, he tried to shoplift and got caught, an act for which he paid a small fine and for which he may have his own CORI (his attorney is investigating) — he must suffer the consequences of someone else’s crimes. As he puts it, "I feel like I’m living somebody else’s life, and it’s the life of a criminal."
IT’LL BE TOUGH to pull off in today’s law-and-order climate, but legislators have filed two bills that would tighten up procedures for entering information into the CORI database and that would limit CORI files to charges that either resulted in conviction or are still pending. Both moves would help thousands of people with CORI files who have a difficult, if not impossible, time finding employers willing to hire them or property owners willing to rent to them. The first measure, Senate Bill 1397, is sponsored by Wilkerson, who is widely regarded as the leading voice on CORI reform at the State House. Her legislation would require the Massachusetts Criminal History Systems Board (CHSB), the agency that maintains the state’s CORI database, to ensure that a CORI report is accurate by double-checking information collected on a person before letting third-party entities view it. The second measure, House Bill 1063, is sponsored by State Representative Ben Swan (D-Springfield). It attempts to mitigate the harm done to people with CORI records by prohibiting the inclusion of charges that have been dropped or found baseless.
Over the years, Wilkerson says, she has received dozens of calls from Boston residents whose names appear as aliases on other people’s CORIs. Some have even contacted her simply because their names and birth dates happen to match those of career criminals. Wilkerson attributes these mix-ups to the way in which the CHSB tracks its information. Although the board collects various data to identify CORI subjects — a person’s name, aliases, address, date of birth, mother’s maiden name, father’s name, and Social Security number — it only confirms the name and birth date of a subject before distributing a CORI. As a result, the senator says, CORIs have become "mismatched and inaccurate."
Many of her constituents have faced only a handful of criminal charges in the past, so their records should appear fairly innocuous. Yet their CORIs feature data that pertains to someone else. One man named Larry Jones — "a very common name," Wilkerson points out — approached her State House office recently. He had a CORI. His own record, however, kept getting confused with that of another Larry Jones, who had accumulated "far worse charges." By the time the first Jones sought Wilkerson’s help, he’d spent four years trying to rectify the mistake. "Not only was his CORI inaccurate," she says, "but he couldn’t even correct the misinformation."
Indeed. Bland, too, has gone to extraordinary lengths to get his CORI corrected. He and Sabbs, the Hampden County prosecutor, have petitioned the Springfield court to remove Bland’s name from Fowler’s CORI — to no avail. Two weeks ago, Ali Bers, a Springfield legal-services attorney who represents Bland, wrote the CHSB to ask that her client's name be removed from Fowler’s CORI — or, at least, that it no longer send out Fowler’s CORI when a prospective employer requests Bland’s. Says Bers, "It shouldn’t be this difficult for Edward to fix this problem. It’s been such a drawn-out process for something that’s so obviously a mistake."
But the problems with CORI are by no means limited to matters of mistaken identity. Many people whose CORIs are correct, but who have led law-abiding lives for years since their last illegal incident, often find that past misdeeds block their paths to productive futures. Consider, for example, the case of Kim Walker, a 46-year-old Raynham resident who suffers from bipolar disorder. Walker (not her real name) experienced her first brush with the law in 1996, when she was mistakenly diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder and prescribed a psychiatric medication called Dexatrin. As soon as she began her pill regime, she says, her personality changed. She grew combative. She picked fights. As she admits, "I was a maniac on it."
So it seems. In December 1996, after a spat with a neighbor, she wound up with a criminal record. The neighbor called the cops, who charged Walker with assault and battery and "threatening to kill." Two years later, in December 1998, she sparked an argument with her then-husband. Things got ugly; Walker says she hit her ex and kicked his car. The incident resulted in three additional charges against her — assault, "intimidation," and destruction of property. Within days, she lashed out again at a different neighbor and racked up another assault charge. All the while, Walker didn’t suspect that her problem was the medication, since her therapist never suggested as much. "The whole time," she says, "I thought I was doing fine and I was just running into the wrong people everywhere."
Eventually, all six charges against Walker were dismissed. For her December 1998 outbursts, the Plymouth District Court placed her on a year of probation, during which she was rediagnosed and taken off the Dexatrin. She’s had no run-ins with the law — or anyone else — since. But even so, Walker’s record continues to hang over her head. This year, for example, three human-services agencies rejected her application for employment after requesting a copy of her record. She failed to land even a $7-an-hour post as a "dietary aide," serving food to nurses in the basement of a nursing facility. Though employers have never mentioned her record, Walker blames it for her predicament. After all, she has a bachelor’s degree in human services. And before her misdiagnosis in 1996, she had worked for eight years in a day-care center, as well as in group homes for troubled teens and mentally ill adults.
"I did some things I deeply regret because I wasn’t getting proper treatment," Walker says. "Now, it seems I have to pay for that forever."