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Boston-area students gathered in front of the State House in downtown Boston on Friday, April 11, to demonstrate in support of a social issue that directly affects very few of them—prison reform. This rally, which was organized and advertised almost entirely through Facebook, brought students from various schools and backgrounds together in pursuit of a common goal: CORI (Criminal Offender Record Information) reform. This was remarkable, not just in regards to the technology that enabled its success, but moreover, in the engagement of the rally’s participants. In an age stereotyped by its decreasing civic engagement, it is indeed refreshing to see students rallying behind a cause that, while irrelevant to their daily campus lives, has an enormous impact on their society as a whole. The passion of these students sheds light on the American dilemmas of incarceration, recidivism, and reintegration of former prisoners.
CORI is a reality of the of the job application process, yet its revelation of any previous criminal offense is often enough to cause a potential employer to discard the application. This proves quite an obstacle for newly released prisoners, who cannot be expected to fully reintegrate into society without a means to support themselves. Ex-convicts must deal with this perpetual catch-22—live comfortably in prison, or live as an outcast outside of it—for up to 15 years under the current structure of the CORI, which seals felony offenders’ records 15 years after their release, and 10 years after release for misdemeanors. It is no wonder that, in a study conducted by the Federal Bureau of Justice, 67.5 percent of released prisoners are rearrested for a new crime within three years of release. The CORI effectively serves as a scarlet letter on job applications: inviting censure and exclusion, regardless of the offender’s contrition or rehabilitation.
The CORI reform bill currently up for debate in the Massachusetts legislature, proposes to change all of this. The reforms set forth by Gov. Deval L. Patrick ’78 include sealing felony records 10 years after release from prison (this will not apply to sex offenders), sealing misdemeanor records five years after release, and making the CORI form easier to read and process. Legislators on the Judiciary Committee hope to come to a decision by the end of this year.
While Patrick’s reforms are a step in the right direction, they cannot be seen as a cure-all to the many ailments of the state’s prison system. There remains the issue of what former prisoners do during the years for which their criminal records are unsealed. Regardless of how many years one’s criminal record is available to employers, employment will always be a problem for former prisoners. Thus, Massachusetts would do well to accompany CORI reform with further reintegration programs. Incentives or government funding, for instance, could be provided to employers who take on the risk of employing reformed prisoners immediately following their release from prison. There is also the option of support centers for released prisoners, an option Massachusetts has already made great progress in with its maintenance of 20 Offices of Community Corrections throughout the state, all of which provide education, counseling, and rehabilitation for prisoners after their release.
Regardless of the outcome of Patrick’s bill, change is already in the air for prisoners in the state of Massachusetts. Let us hope this is the first of many progressive initiatives in this regard.
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