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Michael Jonas | The Political Trail

For ex-offenders, CORI law not working

'Get them jobs,' says activist Horace Small of ex-offenders, 'and there will be fewer crimes.' "Get them jobs," says activist Horace Small of ex-offenders, "and there will be fewer crimes." (JODI HILTON FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE/FILE 2006)

At a time when residents of high-crime neighborhoods are on edge over the plague of gang and gun violence, Mayor Thomas Menino ventured up to Beacon Hill this month to lobby on behalf of the city's ne'er-do-wells. The mayor was there to testify at a Judiciary Committee hearing in favor of a bill to limit employer access to criminal records. While some might say Menino should focus his energies on law-abiders, not lawbreakers, he is driven as much by a concern for the former as the latter.

"There are young people who made a mistake," says Menino. "I don't believe it should be a life sentence."

Reform advocates have complained that the state's Criminal Offender Record Information law, or CORI, has become just that - preventing those convicted of even minor offenses from being able to turn themselves around and find honest work.

But Menino says the wide access to criminal record information does more than just hold back ex-offenders. "It makes neighborhoods unsafe," says Menino. "It's part of our public safety problem, as I see it."

That's because nearly everyone locked up by the criminal justice system is eventually let out, some 250 inmates every month from the Suffolk House of Correction alone. And the options open to them can have a big impact on whether they end up back behind bars - and whether a law-abiding citizen becomes a victim in the process.

CORI laws keep them from getting jobs and finding a place to live, says Menino. "After a while, they get frustrated and get angry, and they turn to the world they came from," he says.

Under the bill Menino supports, access to full CORI reports would be available only to law enforcement agencies and employers that serve children and other vulnerable populations. Other employers would have access to more limited summaries, while all employers seeking information would have to attend a training session on accurate reading of CORI reports, which are notoriously difficult to decipher.

Horace Small, director of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods and a man not unfamiliar with tossing an occasional grenade at politicians, has nothing but praise for the mayor's willingness to push for changes in the CORI system. "He gets this at the most basic level," says Small. "From a practical level, from a public safety level: Get them jobs and there will be fewer crimes."

That basic level involves regular encounters Menino has with young people, sometimes in his City Hall office, but more often in the neighborhoods where they live. At one such session recently in Dorchester's Uphams Corner, Menino says the CORI issue came up repeatedly.

That plenty of young people not even out of their teens already have criminal records is a depressing thought. That those records could be a barrier to success for even those most determined to get on the right path is an even more grim reality for ex-offenders. But it should be of equal concern to those who share the same neighborhood with them.

"I see a real impact every day that we don't take action," says City Councilor Steve Murphy, who cosponsored a 2005 Boston ordinance that lessens the impact of CORI in city hiring.

Menino says a longtime friend of his with a produce business in Newmarket Square makes it a point to hire young people with records, putting into practice the maxim that the best social program is a job. "They're the best workers he has," says Menino.

That may not always be the case, and there are plenty of jobs that even CORI reform advocates acknowledge should be off-limits to those with records for serious offenses. But there will also be a price paid if state lawmakers and the Patrick administration don't figure out the right balance and fix a system that many agree is not working.

Michael Jonas can be reached at jonas@globe.com.

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