Last week's passage of a crime reform bill by the Massachusetts House is being seen by activists as an important, but not complete, step toward the reforms that need to take place.
Activists have been pushing for years to change the Criminal Offender Record Information system—best known as CORI—which they contend works against ex-convicts' successful re-entry into society. Among their concerns: that arrests and convictions remain on people's records for too long, making it difficult for them to find jobs and housing long after their offenses.
That issue was addressed in the legislation passed by the House on May 26: under the bill, felony convictions would be sealed after 10 years, instead of the current 15 years, while misdemeanors would be sealed after five years, down from the current 10. Certain convictions, including murder, manslaughter and sexual offenses, would never be sealed.
In addition, the bill would prohibit employers from asking about convictions on job applications, although they could still ask about them during interviews with potential hires.
Last week's House vote was cheered by some reformers. "By passing this bill, the House has chosen a 'smart on crime' approach," Wilnelia Rivera, director of the Commonwealth CORI Coalition, said in a press release after the vote. "The measure will allow the Commonwealth to tackle crime in a meaningful way by increasing employment opportunities for ex-offenders and reducing recidivism rates. CORI reform will stop the revolving door of recidivism (of new crimes with new crime victims), strengthen families, and cut costs to taxpayers in the process."
But to others, the bill stops far short of what's needed. In a statement last week, Barbara Dougan, Massachusetts project director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, expressed disappointment in the House bill, which failed to include a number of provisions that were in a reform bill passed by the Senate late last year, including changes to sentencing laws and measures that would make it easier for drug offenders to apply for parole and to take part in work-release programs.
"We are disappointed that the House missed the opportunity to save taxpayers millions while enhancing public safety," Dougan said. "The reforms we seek would allow nonviolent drug offenders the chance to become legitimate wage earners. Eligibility for parole and work release are common-sense reforms supported by the state's top law enforcement officials and the majority of voters. We simply cannot afford either the financial or social costs of forcing low-level, nonviolent drug offenders to languish in prison."
The House bill also failed to address the controversial issue of "drug-free school zones," which create mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes that happen within 1,000 feet of schools and day care centers. Those "school-zone" penalties come on top of the penalties for the underlying crime, such as drug dealing or possession.
A 2009 report by Easthampton's Prison Policy Initiative found the zones are ineffective at achieving their purported goal—to reduce drug activity near schools—because they are drawn too widely. The report also found that the laws unfairly subject residents of urban areas—who are more likely to be poor, or to be members of minority groups—to harsher penalties than rural and suburban residents. (See "Urban Penalty," Feb. 26, 2009, www.valleyadvocate.com.)
A legislative conference committee will hash out the differences between the House and Senate bills; the full Legislature will then vote on the compromise bill.