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Record time (continued)

BY KRISTEN LOMBARDI


OVER THE PAST decade, the privacy rights of CORI subjects have largely given way to the publicís right to know. Lawmakers have granted more and more access to the stateís CORI database to agencies serving "vulnerable populations," such as children, the elderly, and the disabled. Just last November ó in the wake of Bostonís clergy-sex-abuse scandal, which created pressure on politicians to enact child-abuse laws ó legislators again extended the use of CORIs. This time, they mandated that schools, camps, and youth groups conduct criminal-background checks on employees and volunteers who have, as the law states, "direct and unmonitored contact with children." Meanwhile, the CHSB, which tracks and disseminates CORIs, has opened its database to others outside the entities whose access is mandated by law ó if the 18-member board decides the publicís interest in disclosure outweighs a personís interest in privacy.

The result? A dramatic increase in the dissemination of criminal records. Currently, according to the CHSB, as many as 9000 private and public organizations ó from nursing homes to day-care centers, from airports to armored-car companies, from libraries to housing authorities ó are certified to receive CORIs, as compared to just 2000 a decade ago. Since the November 2002 amendment to the CORI Act, which went into effect last February, the CHSB has witnessed a sharp spike in the number of CORI requests it processes ó from 83,000 per month in 2002 to 125,000 per month today. Put another way, the CHSB estimates it will send out approximately 1.5 million CORIs this year, a 50 percent increase from the one million distributed in 2002. Says Barry LaCroix, the CHSB executive director, "The people [at CHSB] doing the work certainly consider that to be substantial."

It is. But the increased volume will almost certainly result in more mistakes in the system ó mistakes with devastating consequences for people with CORIs, who are, more and more, encountering barriers to employment, housing, and even education. At the Boston-based Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI), Francisca Fajana, a staff attorney, fields an average of six calls per day from residents across the state whoíre experiencing CORI-related problems. Last year, Fajana and her colleagues set up a program dubbed the "CORI Project" after hearing complaints about the effects of the CORI Act from the African-American and Latino communities in Boston, Springfield, and Worcester. Since the projectís inception, in May 2002, the MLRI has helped 334 people deal with CORIs. Generally speaking, Fajana explains, people who have records ó even those who were never convicted of a crime ó are finding it almost impossible to secure a job, an apartment, or a student loan.

By far, the biggest problem mirrors Walkerís experience, because CORI files are chock full of information, but thin on context. Much of the trouble could be alleviated by limiting the information sent out by the CHSB to data on criminal charges that end in conviction or are still pending. Generally, thatís exactly what the CHSB does: it reviews the documents and sifts out mere charges of wrongdoing before forwarding them to employers. But certain employers still get to glimpse what Springfield attorney Bers, who works at Western Massachusetts Legal Services, which also has a CORI project, describes as "the kitchen sink." Employers like child-care providers and nursing homes are entitled by law to receive "all available CORI." Though the phrase sounds vague, the CHSB, according to LaCroix, takes that language to mean everything defined under the CORI Act, including "conviction data, arrest data, sealed-record data, and juvenile-arrest data." So even charges ending favorably ó such as charges that are dismissed, as Walkerís were, or that are found baseless in court ó can appear on CORIs. Itís easy to guess what happens when employers get a peak at every accusation ever leveled at an individual: they donít extend a job offer. "Employers donít look at the CORI to see if cases ended favorably," Bers says. "They just see how bad the charges are."

Fajana, of the MLRI, is more blunt: "Employers see charges and say, ĎForget it.í"

TO HEAR THE CHSB tell it, the CORI system is fair and balanced, and simply ensures that certain ex-offenders donít work in certain environments. The boardís LaCroix finds it "very important" that people with records go through background checks when applying for specific jobs. The CORI Act, he says, "does a good job of restricting CORIs only where needed." He recognizes that the law makes it tough for a violent offender to work in a nursing home, or a drug offender in a pharmaceutical lab, noting, "Itís not a bad thing to prohibit employment in such instances."

He also emphasizes that the CHSB does not write the rules. Instead, it fulfills a mandate laid out by the CORI Act. When it comes to disseminating CORIs, the board has already limited the information that private entities can see to convictions and pending cases ó except, of course, if the legislature has said otherwise. And when legislation gives agencies access to "all available CORIs," he explains, "that means if it falls under the definition of CORI, we have no choice but to disseminate it."

So what about the consequences of such broad language? Says LaCroix, "Certainly, we donít want to keep people from getting jobs. We just want to steer people toward the most appropriate jobs."

As for accuracy, LaCroix and his fellow officials in the Executive Office of Public Safety (EOPS), which oversees the CHSB, take issue with the criticisms. The word "inaccurate" implies that a CORI includes false material. "That almost never happens," LaCroix contends. He and other officials allow that a "disconnect" can occur in the dissemination process if a person, like Fowler, uses the name of another person, like Bland, as an alias. Strictly speaking, they maintain, the CORI is not incorrect, since it reflects the right charges accrued by Fowler. Rather, itís wrongly associated with Bland, who didnít commit the crimes. Yet in such situations, LaCroix states, "itís up to the user" ó i.e., the employer ó to figure out the truth by double-checking an applicantís driverís license, birth certificate, and so on. (Of course, in Blandís case, the truth was ascertained only by a fingerprint comparison, something virtually no employer would be able to do.)

"We want information [on aliases] out there," he asserts, since the criminal will probably continue to use them. "The idea," he says, "is to give the requester this information so the requester can determine" the truth. When asked if he thinks employers really go to such lengths to scrutinize a mixed-up CORI, he replies, "I do."

EOPS spokesperson David Shaw agrees: "Employers need to give a high level of scrutiny to the CORIs they see. By getting this information, there is a responsibility to apply it in ways that are fair."

To reformers, however, the onus for fairness and accuracy must be placed on the system ó not on its users or subjects. Which is why the pending reform bills make so much sense. Senate Bill 1397 would simply require the CHSB to match all information it gathers ó not just names and birth dates ó before sending out a CORI report. It would also require the board to mail a copy to the CORI subject, so he or she can see what employers see, and appeal any mistakes. Meanwhile, House Bill 1063 would restrict the data the CHSB can disseminate, rather than giving it the discretion to include every run-in with the law a person has ever had. According to Haywood Fennell, who heads the Stanley Jones Clean Slate Project, a Boston advocacy group for ex-offenders, the bills donít aim to dismantle the CORI Act. Clearly, he says, the state has an interest in making it easier for employers to screen potential employees who have a propensity to commit violent acts. All these measures would do is establish much-needed parameters on the use of CORIs.

Says Fennell, "I donít expect you to hire a bank robber in a bank or a rapist in a day-care center. But when a person convicted of shoplifting has been crime-free for years and cannot find a job, thereís a problem."

As it stands, Governor Mitt Romney and his administration have yet to take a formal position on the two reforms. The CHSB, for its part, has hinted at its opposition to one of them: Senate Bill 1397. Logistically, LaCroix says, the board would have difficulty taking the extra precautions required by the bill. To do so, the CHSB would have to rely on photographs of or interviews with CORI subjects to ensure the data matches the individual whose CORI was requested. He says, "I have information" ó like Social Security numbers and fathersí names ó "but I donít have the individual in front of me to make sure itís the right person." He adds, "It would be difficult to accomplish [the billís requirements] in the current framework of the system."

Shaw insists that the CHSB "is not engaged in the practice of purposely misidentifying anyone." Yet the board and the EOPS find the steps laid out by the Senate bill "ineffective." In other words, the measure would translate into more paperwork and personnel hours for the CHSB, which, in turn, would cost more money.

What such comments mean for the future of these bills is anyoneís guess. On the one hand, the reforms have gotten further than anticipated; indeed, last April, the legislative Joint Committee on Public Safety gave Senate Bill 1397 a favorable report just one month after hearing testimony on it. The bill is currently before the Senate Ways and Means Committee, which is weighing the CHSB and EOPS comments. House Bill 1063, now before the Joint Committee on Criminal Justice, has already had a hearing, at which no one voiced opposition. State Representative Anne Paulsen (D-Belmont), who supports both reforms and who sits on the criminal-justice committee, believes they have "a good chance" at advancing through the State House. "Everybody agrees CORIs are important," she says, "but thereís a sense that [the system] should be done with fairness and accuracy."

On the other hand, reformers must reckon with the law-and-order culture thatís long prevailed on the Hill ó one the Romney administration seems willing to foster. Representative Swan, for one, says "a lot of people in the legislature" want to encourage more access to the stateís CORI database. In fact, two measures currently filed at the State House would work in the opposite direction of reform by granting more access to CORIs. Swan sees such efforts as part of todayís tough-on-crime climate. Many legislators regard ex-offenders as they do prisoners. As he characterizes it, "These people should be punished for the rest of their lives."

But if legislators need a reminder of how the CORI system can cause harm, they need look no further than Kim Walker or Edward Bland. Both have had to grapple with the consequences of having a CORI ó or, in Blandís case, of someone with a CORI using his name as an alias ó for years now. Theyíve had to endure repeated rejection by employers, repeated barriers to success. Of course, this is to say nothing of the jail time Blandís endured for being confused with a career criminal; over the past seven years, heís been tossed in the Springfield Police holding cell "at least 10 times." In 1999, he even spent four days ó four days! ó in Ludlow County Jail after a cop pulled him over for a traffic violation and pulled up Fowlerís CORI. As painful experience has taught him, a CORI "can tear your life apart."

Bland asks: "Why should I have to suffer because of the systemís mistakes? Why should anyone not have the chance to move forward in life?"

Why, indeed?

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Issue Date: August 29 - September 4, 2003
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