New CORI law praised; Patrick re-enacts signing at rally at city hall.
WORCESTER - Steve Denson said his heart ached every time he took out his 5-year-old daughter and couldn't buy her an ice cream because he was unemployed and had no money.
Mr. Denson, a Worcester resident, desperately searched for work but couldn't land a job because prospective employers were wary of hiring him because of the time he had served in jail on drug offenses.
"I paid my debt to society," said Mr. Denson, who eventually found work at Spectrum Health Systems in Westboro. "I wanted to change my life but that's a difficult thing to do if you don't have a job."
Mr. Denson said that convicted criminals who have served out their sentences and are trying to rebuild their lives now have a better chance at netting meaningful employment and good housing, thanks to recently enacted legislation that overhauls the state's criminal records system.
For years, ex-offenders and their advocates had maintained that the old Criminal Offender Record Information system, commonly known as CORI, had thrown up roadblocks to former prisoners trying to re-integrate into society.
Many of those hurdles were removed when Gov. Deval L. Patrick earlier this month signed a bill, that, among other things, limits the access of landlords and employers to conviction data and lessens the time span that criminal records are accessible to the public.
Yesterday afternoon, long-time advocates of CORI reform - joined by state and local officials who had lobbied on their behalf - gathered at City Hall to hail those changes.
"We want to be productive members of society, not a menace," said Mr. Denson, the coordinator of the Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement, or EPOCA, one of the groups that pushed for CORI reform.
Mr. Patrick, who, at the gathering, re-enacted the bill's signing, said that everyone in the country deserves a second chance and noted that CORI reform gives them that opportunity.
He said that 95 percent of those who receive prison sentences in Massachusetts get out of jail so it makes sense to help them "mainstream back into society."
"I see this as a jobs bill," said the governor.
Under the new law, felony convictions for those who don't re-offend would be sealed after 10 years, instead of the current 15. Meanwhile, misdemeanor convictions would be closed after five years, instead of 10.
There's no change, however, for convictions for murder and serious sex crimes. They will remain in the system permanently.
Among other provisions, the legislation prevents employers from asking job candidates about their criminal background on initial applications.
Reform advocates had been working to overhaul the system for at least six years.
"This (vote) was a no-brainer for me," said state Rep. James J. O'Day, D-West Boylston.
Mr. O'Day said that, as a social worker, he worked with many families whose breadwinner had difficulty finding work because of the CORI system.
State Sen. Harriette L. Chandler, D-Worcester, a proponent of the legislation, said many ex-convicts were haunted their entire lives by their crimes because of the CORI system. She said the reform bill was passed because of hard work by grass roots organizations.
"This was not a top down effort," she said.
Christian Amado of Boston said CORI reform would have made it much easier for him to get into school.
The Roxbury resident was convicted of murder in the shooting death of another Boston man. He served two years of a life sentence at Walpole state prison before the state Supreme Judicial Court threw out his conviction in 1982.
Mr. Amado said he is now studying at Westfield State College to be a counselor. He said he had difficulty in registering in some courses because of the CORI system.
"These changes will help some people to get their lives in order," said the 52-year-old.
Besides EPOCA, other groups behind the effort to tweak CORI included the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and Neighbor to Neighbor.
Those who had opposed the changes said that the CORI system, as originally constituted, helped employers and landlords screen potentially dangerous workers and tenants.
CUTLINE: Gov. Deval L. Patrick looks up Monday as he re-enacts signing the CORI reform bill. At left is Worcester student Alejandra Guingue, 8. Mr. Patrick explained the bill process to the child before the signing.
PHOTOG: T&G Staff/CHRISTINE PETERSON