House lawmakers today approved legislation long sought by Governor Deval Patrick that would limit employers’ access to the criminal records of job applicants, saying the measure would make it easier for former convicts to find work and avoid the temptations of crime.
Moments after the bill passed, on a 138-17 vote, a throng of former offenders and activists who had been watching from the House gallery spilled into the halls of the State House, cheering and chanting, "Sí, se puede!" – Spanish for "Yes, we can!" The bill was a major priority for many of Boston’s ministers and others who work to reintegrate former offenders into society.
"I’m really excited about this," said a jubilant Steve O’Neill, executive director of the group EPOCA, Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement. "This is going to change things enormously, because now people get a chance to get their foot in their door and prove who they are and be considered for their merits before their demerits are counted against them."
The bill is a stripped-down version of legislation that passed the Senate in November. Under both measures, felony charges on a person’s record would automatically be sealed and unavailable to prospective employers after 10 years, instead of 15 years under current law.
Misdemeanor charges would be sealed after 5 years, rather than 10 under current law. Some crimes – such as murder and manslaughter– would never be sealed and would be forever available to employers. Unlike the Senate bill, the House bill requires that sex offenses never be sealed, House lawmakers said.
The House bill also excludes a provision in the Senate version that would allow drug offenders to be paroled after serving two-thirds of a mandatory minimum sentence. Both measures prohibit questions about a person’s criminal records on job applications, although employers are free to ask about their records during job interviews. That was known as the so-called "Ban the box" provision and was seen as vital to giving former offenders a chance at finding work.
The measure passed the House without any debate, after lawmakers spent more than five hours behind closed doors hashing out disagreements. The vote fell largely along party lines.
The House and Senate versions must now be reconciled by lawmakers from both chambers before a final bill can be sent to the governor.
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