CORI Keeps People Locked Up
By Jonathan Barry
On January 12th, Governor Deval Patrick announced a bill and an executive order aimed at reforming the state’s system of criminal records.
Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) is a pillar of racism in Massachusetts. For over two and a half years, a diverse coalition of community groups has been organizing a movement to demand change in the current system of criminal records – a system that members of Governor Deval Patrick’s office have described as “broken”. In particular, this coalition supports the reforms proposed in House Bill #1416 (also known as The Public Safety Act of 2007) to make the changes to reform it.
On September 18, 2007, more than 600 people rallied in front of the Statehouse in favor of the Public Safety Act prior to giving testimony before a judiciary committee about how their lives have been adversely affected by CORI and why change is necessary. The committee will decide which bills will go in front of the State Legislature for a vote later this year.
CORI is a statewide database of criminal records that lists the number of times an individual has been before a court and the charges against them. Every year in Massachusetts approximately 20,000 people are discharged from correctional facilities with CORIs. Many more people have CORIs that have not even been convicted or incarcerated.
Originally, CORI was designed so that law enforcement officials could gather information efficiently and release it to hospitals, universities and other institutions with a clear need to see the records. In practice, the majority of employers ask job applicants for permission to access their CORIs and will withhold jobs from people who have a CORI. The vast majority of employers do not know how to read a CORI (for example, employers might not be able to differentiate between a conviction and a non-conviction on the record, or between somebody who has several entries on a report because of an appeal process for a single incident and a person who has been tried for multiple crimes). Yet these employers often deny jobs because of the reports, even though the charges may be irrelevant to the jobs being sought. Additionally, CORI often prevents applicants from obtaining subsidized housing or loans, getting insurance, becoming a guardian or foster parent and accessing other societal resources.
These discriminatory practices disproportionately affect people of color because of racial profiling and the high police presence in neighborhoods that are predominantly non-White. As such, the CORI system is a perfect example of how institutional racism works to systematically deny people of color
access to resources and participation in the work force. It is also possible to draw connections between the current public housing crisis in New Orleans and the use of CORI to deny public housing in Massachusetts. For more info about New Orleans, please visit peopleshurricane.org.
Not to mention the large corporations that reap huge economic gains from keeping large percentages of the population behind bars. Adding to the enormous corporate profiteering from the prison industrial complex, when people get out of prison, they are far less likely to be able to build a successful life because of CORI and often wind up back in jail. Corporations that build prisons and run them (because prisons are increasingly becoming privatized) actually profit from that bullshit. For example, in 1998, one prison pay phone generated on average $15,000 a year for MCI. MCI installed these phones for free. Since 1970, the percentage of the general U.S. population behind bars has quadrupled. As the numbers grow, the profits keep going up. And in Massachusetts, where 85% of the citizenry is white, people of color make up over 55% of the state’s prison population. The prison industry is one of the fastest growing industries in the country – profiting off of exploitation and oppression. CORI, as an outgrowth of that industry, is designed to keep people of color contained, both behind prison walls and in our communities.
To take it a step further, sexual violence against inmates- particularly women, transgender folks, and people who identify as gay, lesbian, or
bisexual- is highly prevalent in prisons. Women, transgender people and non-heterosexuals are much more likely to be victims of sexual violence than straight men. As a result, people whose identities are already marginalized by society are beat down (literally and figuratively) even further in a prison environment. Prison rape distorts inmates’ images of their gender and sexuality and limits inmates’ psychological development. It destroys their ability to affirm their identities as people. Ultimately, sexual violence in prisons destroys communities. Prisons destroy communities. CORI destroys
CORI also affects students. Colleges can deny financial aid and even admission if an individual has a CORI. More research in this area by students is key to a fuller understanding of how CORI can affect student life. The Common Application and individual college applications ask questions about disciplinary history. While colleges do not have the power to check for CORIs, high school policies do have the power to determine how and what information students and guidance counselors must disclose on college applications. Students at Boston College, Brandeis, and Harvard are engaging in city-wide and campus struggles to push our city’s universities to become friendlier to applicants with CORIs friendly.
Somewhat more discouraging though, is data produced in a recent study that white people with CORIs are actually more likely to get called back after a first interview for an entry-level job than a black person without one. The study found that 34 percent of the white test group without criminal records received callbacks while only 14 percent of the black group without records was called back. The white group with CORIs was called back 17 percent of the time, while the black group with records had a 5 percent chance of callbacks.
Aaron Tanaka of the Boston Workers Alliance writes: “Clearly, undoing criminal record discrimination is crucial for reversing the devastatingly low chances of Black returning prisoners—often concentrated in a handful of neighborhoods—to overcome chronic unemployment. But, given that employers prefer White ex-offenders to all Black applicants for entry-level jobs, eliminating the discriminatory mechanism of criminal record checks does not necessarily present a solution to the broader crisis of Black underemployment; ending record checks without addressing racism in business ownership and hiring could simply promote employer preference of white ex-offenders and exacerbate existing disparities between Black and White job seekers.” Fighting CORI, white
supremacy, and other systems of oppression must go hand in hand.
But to bring it back to the Public Safety Act – if passed, it would decrease the amount of time needed to close a record or “seal” a CORI from fifteen years to seven years for a felony, and from ten years to three years for a misdemeanor. The new law would also remove non-convictions from an individual’s record and include a non-discrimination clause, which would prevent employers or other institutions from accessing CORIs until they had decided whether or not the applicant was qualified. Institutions would then be required to allow the individual a chance to explain their CORI if one came up. Also, there would be mandatory training for those companies who are authorized to read CORIs. The bill would also make it possible for judges to remove all CORIs from juvenile records upon turning 18 years of age to give them a clean slate upon which to build their adult lives.
The movement for CORI reform in Massachusetts is at a critical juncture because, with the upcoming election year, the likelihood of progressive CORI legislation becomes less and less likely. However, you can play a critical role in the movement for CORI reform. Call Governor Deval Patrick’s office (617-725-4005) and tell him you want him to support the reforms proposed in the Public Safety Act of 2007! Visit bostonworkersalliance.org for more information, or join the city-wide student CORI email list to learn more about student campaigns underway at Boston College, Harvard and Brandeis to make our cities universities more CORI friendly. Taking action and working to reform the system to allow CORI subjects to acquire decent jobs, housing, financial aid and other resources is essential to preventing recidivism and building stronger communities.
Other articles by Jonathan Barry.