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Criminal records bill gets House OK

Would limit access to job seekers’ past

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / May 27, 2010

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House lawmakers yesterday approved legislation long sought by Governor Deval Patrick that would limit employers’ access to the criminal records of job applicants, a change that supporters said would make it easier for former convicts to find work and avoid a return to crime.

Moments after the bill passed, on a 138 to 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. The bill was a priority for many of Boston’s ministers and others who work to reintegrate former offenders into society.

“It’s so nice to have a voice that’s heard,’’ said Cassandra Bensahih, an aspiring medical secretary from Worcester who said she had served six months for a drug offense.

“I’m not asking for a handout,’’ said Bensahih, a mother of three who said she had been turned down for jobs and for housing because of her record. “I’m just asking for a chance to prove myself. This is the chance.’’

The bill is a version of legislation that passed the Senate in November. Under both measures, felony convictions on a person’s record would be sealed and unavailable to prospective employers after 10 years, instead of 15 years under current law. A House-Senate conference committee must now iron out differences between the bills.

Misdemeanors would be sealed after five years, rather than 10 under current law. Some crimes, such as murder and manslaughter, would never be sealed to employers. The House legislation, unlike the Senate version, requires that sex offenses never be sealed, House lawmakers said.

Both measures prohibit job applications from including questions about a person’s criminal record, although employers are free to ask about that 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 cleared 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, although six Democrats joined the majority of the House’s 15 Republicans in opposing the bill.

“I feel very strongly that we should be strengthening the [Criminal Offender Record Information] law and not making it more weak, and I feel that’s what this does, absolutely weaken the CORI law,’’ said Representative James R. Miceli, a Wilmington Democrat, who voted against the bill. “People who have a history might end up in positions where they shouldn’t be.’’

House leaders said the bill would reduce crime by giving offenders a second chance. One key supporter was Representative Eugene L. O’Flaherty, a Chelsea Democrat and House chairman of the Judiciary Committee, who said he had long harbored reservations about the legislation.

O’Flaherty said he had worried for years that the bill would make it difficult for public housing officials, who are also governed by the legislation, to screen out former convicts who pose a risk to society. But after studying the issue, he said, he learned that the chance of a convict reoffending drops sharply after six years, so a 10-year limit on access to their records is reasonable.

The bill “makes a policy acknowledgement about rehabilitation, that turning a corner actually means something in our criminal justice policy,’’ O’Flaherty told his colleagues in the lone floor speech on the issue.

A jubilant Steve O’Neill, executive director of Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement, said, “This is going to change things enormously, because now people get a chance to get their foot in the door and prove who they are and be considered for their merits before their demerits are counted against them.’’

Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who has for years pushed for limits in the criminal offender record system and who has testified on the issue at the State House, released a statement praising last night’s House vote.

“CORI reform is not about allowing those who commit serious crimes to escape the consequences of their actions; it is about helping those who make mistakes and pay their debt to society to be reincorporated as positive, contributing members of the community,’’ he said.

Patrick’s office released a statement last night saying he “looks forward to working with the House and Senate to get a strong bill on his desk.’’

“This is about being tough and smart on crime prevention, reducing recidivism, and helping ex-offenders get back on their feet to lead productive lives,’’ the statement said.

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.

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