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Criminal records changes.

Byline: John J. Monahan

Worcester District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr. yesterday praised the governor for proposing changes to the state's criminal record information system, but said any modifications must ensure that employers can learn about past convictions for violent crimes and theft.

Mr. Early said that while he does not support all the changes proposed by the governor, he hopes the proposed legislation triggers in-depth discussion in the Legislature about how to improve the records system and tackle the state's high rate of recidivism for those released from state and county prisons.

"I really like the fact that it is being addressed by the governor. I have to credit the governor for dealing with it," Mr. Early said, because the handling of public access to criminal records can be a very controversial issue.

The governor has proposed legislation that would reduce the length of time before a conviction could be sealed from 15 to 10 years for felonies and from 10 to five years for misdemeanor offenses. Under the proposed changes, sex offender records would never be sealed. Police would have access to all records.

Mr. Early said that while reducing the time before records are sealed could be beneficial for some offenses, he would object to doing so for all crimes. For example, he said, employers should be allowed to learn about violent crimes and crimes of theft, as the employers have to be concerned about safety and security for their businesses and workplaces.

"You don't want them to be blind to what these people have done in the past," Mr. Early said. Rather than sealing those records, employers could be offered some type of incentive to hire people who have served their sentences that could balance out the additional risk posed by hiring someone with a criminal record.

Mr. Early said that kind of program could go a long way to addressing the problem of getting the 20,000 people released from state prisons each year back into the work force and reduce the current recidivism rate. Forty-nine percent of those released are arrested again within the first year.

Other changes proposed by the governor, he said, would help clear widespread problems with the accuracy of the criminal record system that has complicated life for innocent people as well as those trying to overcome past scrapes with the law.

Some people with the same name as a criminal have been misidentified in the current system and face enormous problems trying to correct errors. Others have had their identities falsely used by criminals and face a bureaucratic maze getting their names cleared. "I applaud the governor for making it easier to correct the record when it is wrong," Mr. Early said.

Commenting on the way employment standards play into the recidivism problem, Mr. Early said the state has to find a new balance. "You have to hold them accountable for their actions, but don't penalize them so much they cannot stay out of the criminal justice system."

In a press release yesterday, members of the Worcester-based Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement commended the governor for his efforts to reform the CORI. They said the existing system has been an impossible obstacle for past offenders to overcome, and an overhaul is long overdue.

"Giving a person an opportunity to become a productive member of society will dramatically increase public safety," EPOCA Vice President Delia Sanchez said. "CORI discrimination imprisons whole families and only hurts those who are trying to better themselves."

Joseph Delia, a member of the group, complained that getting an education hasn't helped him to overcome the stigma employers attach to someone with a criminal record.

"Even with my master's degree in psychology, I can't find family-sustaining employment that I'm qualified for because of my CORI," he said.

However, Mr. Early said sealing records does not always solve the problem. In many cases, he said an employer will see a criminal record has been sealed and be left to wonder about the seriousness of the crime involved and unable to find out more.

If they can't be confident of what the record means, he said, many employers, "won't take the chance. The employer will look at a sealed record, and it will scare the employer away. They don't know whether it was a crime of destruction of property or murder," he said.

"Employers and the public have to be protected," he said, adding that many employers want to see the current system improved as well. He said he hopes employers are heard from in the process. "Employers have to be heard. You can't just shove it down their throats," Mr. Early said.

As part of the reform initiative, the governor last week ordered state officials to develop recommendations for improving pre-release and post-release training programs. Mr. Early said those programs need to focus on substance abuse problems as well as job training.


The plan: Gov. Patrick has proposed legislation that would reduce the length of time before a conviction could be sealed from 15 to 10 years for felonies and from 10 to five years for misdemeanor offenses.

Other changes: Sex offender records would never be sealed, and police would have access to all records.

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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jan 16, 2008
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