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Access, limits on criminal records

10-year cap on checks, but firms go further

'Once your debt is paid to society, how much more do you have to pay?' asked Donald Washington. "Once your debt is paid to society, how much more do you have to pay?" asked Donald Washington.
By Katie Johnston
Globe Staff / May 7, 2012
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The state on Monday launches a new online system to check criminal backgrounds that would provide wider and easier access for employers, but limit their searches of criminal history to 10 years back.

That limit, part of a new law that updates the system known as CORI, for Criminal Offender Record Information, is sparking a debate that pits the rights of employers to know the history of job applicants against the needs of people with decades-old convictions to work and move ahead with their lives.

It is also raising questions about the role of lightly regulated background-screening companies, which can dig far back into court records, sometimes reporting erroneous information about applicants to employers.

A coalition of 125 community organizations, religious institutions, and labor unions has proposed barring screening companies from using the state’s central system if they continue to rely on court records to gather more information than they can get in the registry. No other state has prohibited screening companies from using its CORI system if they also use the courts.

“The intent of the CORI law is to ensure that criminal records that are nonconvictions, very old convictions, or inaccurate would not be used against them and prevent them from getting housing or employment in the future,’’ said Steve O’Neill, of Ex-prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement, an advocacy group in Worcester.

But the National Association of Professional Background Screeners, a trade group in Schaumburg, Ill., opposes limits on gathering information.

“We find that we have more accurate information when we go to the primary source,’’ said board member Christine Cunneen, chief executive of Hire Image, a Rhode Island screening company. “I think it would actually harm Massachusetts employers to put restrictions on what information they’re allowed to use.’’

The Massachusetts CORI law was passed in 1972 to restrict dissemination of criminal histories to law enforcement agencies but evolved into a central registry to check the backgrounds of employees and volunteers at health care facilities, schools, and other organizations that deal with vulnerable populations.

Under the latest CORI overhaul, all employers, landlords, and background screening companies can access the Internet-based registry. But these checks will reveal no more than 10 years of criminal history, with the exception of homicides and sex offenses. They also will not include old arrests that did not result in a conviction.

The rationale for the limit, according to the state, is to provide greater opportunities for offenders who stay out of trouble to reintegrate into society.

Jenna Knight, 40, a recovering crack cocaine addict and alcoholic, racked up several felonies, such as writing bad checks and breaking and entering, two decades ago. She has been sober for 17 years and earned a bachelor’s degree in 2005, she said, but has not been able to land a job because background checks turn up her old offenses. As a result, she gets by largely on Social Security disability payments.

“I wanted to be self-sufficient,’’ said Knight, who lives in Worcester. “I didn’t want to live off the state all my life.’’

More than 90 percent of companies conduct criminal background checks on at least some job candidates, according to a 2010 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, a professional association in Alexandria, Va.

Donald Washington, a case manager at a Worcester social services agency, said such checks kept him from getting jobs for years after he completed a prison sentence for stealing from his employer in the early 1990s - though he never faced another criminal charge.

“Once your debt is paid to society, how much more do you have to pay?’’ said Washington, 55. “The most dangerous person is a desperate person.’’

To discourage checks that reach long into the past, the coalition of community and other groups, known as the Commonwealth CORI Coalition, has proposed that the state lower its $25-per-search fee for screening firms if they agree to disseminate only the information they get from the online CORI system.

If the firms continue to report criminal histories from court records, the coalition has asked the state to deny them access to the online system, which is expected to produce search results within minutes and could save users time and money. The Patrick administration is reviewing the coalition’s proposal.

“We think it’s an intriguing idea,’’ said Curtis Wood, an undersecretary at the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, which administers the CORI system. “We do believe that the data that we’re going to be producing on May 7 is the most accurate and up-to-date record that anybody can get.’’

Steve DiFillippo, the restaurateur who owns Davio’s and Avila in Boston, said he might use the new CORI system to run checks on wait staff and busboys, who are not currently screened. But DiFillippo, who describes himself as a “huge second-chances guy,’’ said he still plans to use outside screening companies for prospective chefs and managers to get a longer view of their pasts.

“If someone’s 40, you should be able to look at what they did in their 20s,’’ he said. “You’ve got to make sure your place is safe.’’

Last month, the National Consumer Law Center, an advocacy group in Boston, issued a report detailing errors committed by background check companies. Mistakes include matching people with crimes they did not commit; omitting information about a case, such as an arrest that did not result in conviction; and revealing sealed juvenile offenses. The National Association of Professional Background Screeners said the error rate is very small, and the association is taking steps to help reduce errors.

People can challenge incorrect criminal histories, said study author Persis Yu, but they often do not find out about mistakes until after a prospective employer has decided against hiring them.

“By the time they find an error on a background check,’’ Yu said, “it’s too late.’’

Katie Johnston can be reached at kjohnston@globe.com.

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