State speeds sealing of criminal records
The warnings pop up in job ads all over the Internet: No one with a felony or misdemeanor need apply.
For the estimated 70 million American adults with a criminal record, finding work can be a challenge. Older records can be sealed, so they don’t surface when employers run background checks. But until recently, the sealing process in Massachusetts took so long that candidates ran the risk of missing out on jobs.
So the Massachusetts Probation Service reconfigured its workforce to reduce the time it takes to seal a record from more than three months to just a few days. The goal, said Thomas Capasso, director of the probation department’s records unit, is to give people more access to employment on short notice.
“Jobs don’t wait around,” he said.
The time it takes to seal a record skyrocketed after more people became eligible to have their records sealed following a change in Massachusetts law in 2012. The new law allowed people to restrict access to their criminal records five years after a misdemeanor conviction and 10 years after a felony — down from 10 and 15 years, respectively. That led to a 60 percent increase in the number of people petitioning to have their records sealed.
Some convictions — for perjury, ethics violations, and certain firearms and sex offenses — can never be sealed.
Today, the probation department gets more than 500 petitions a month and seals between 3,000 and 5,000 charges.
For those who can’t get their records sealed quickly, the results can be devastating.
Tut Liu, a case manager who works with troubled children in Worcester, had a misdemeanor assault on his record that was dismissed in 2011. When a state audit of his agency turned up the charge a few years later, his employer ordered him to have his record cleared up. But the sealing process took so long — four months, in all, during which time he wasn’t allowed to handle cases — that the agency let him go.
What made it even more frustrating, he said: “I was innocent.”
Despite job postings stating that people with a criminal record won’t be considered, federal law prohibits most employers from discriminating against job candidates who have a criminal history. In Massachusetts, companies are generally not allowed to ask about arrests or convictions on job applications.
Still, two-thirds of organizations conduct criminal background checks on all job candidates, according to the Society for Human Resource Management, and if something pops up, many employers automatically rule out those candidates.
Steve DeFillippo, who owns the Davio’s restaurant chain, said he is willing to consider workers with a criminal past, but admits he has “zero tolerance” for some offenses, including violence and theft.
“You beat up your wife,” he said, “you’re probably not going to work at Davio’s.”
Finding employment is crucial for former offenders. Two years after being released, twice as many unemployed people had committed another crime compared with those who had jobs, according to the National Employment Law Project, a New York workers rights group.
But jobs are hard to come by for people with criminal records. As many as 75 percent of former offenders don’t have jobs up to a year after they are released, according to the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the US Department of Justice.
And for people of color, it’s even tougher. One study found that black former offenders looking for work were twice as likely to be rejected as whites.
Some people are unaware that they even have records that need to be sealed. Dismissals and not-guilty findings show up on some background checks, and employers are often reluctant to hire people with anything on their Criminal Offender Record Information, or CORI, said Cassandra Bensahih, director of Ex-prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement, an advocacy group in Worcester.
Job openings can come up quickly — when someone is laid off or finds a better opportunity — and being able to clear up a record quickly is essential, Bensahih said. “The faster the better,” she added.
Shortly after Capasso took over the records unit in late 2014, he started revamping the process, dedicating three staff members solely to reviewing applicants’ Massachusetts criminal histories — CORI checks don’t include out-of-state charges — and bringing in two additional workers to handle other tasks.
In the past six months, sealing times have been three days or less, according to the probation department.
On standard CORI checks, generally for employees who don’t handle sensitive information or work with children or the elderly, charges over the five- and 10-year limit are automatically withheld.
Just because a record is sealed doesn’t mean it’s invisible to everyone, though. Charges against people who have been fingerprinted remain in the FBI database, even for local arrests, and employers such as law enforcement agencies and child care providers that run more extensive background checks could still see them.
Tia Gomez is hoping the state’s faster turnaround time will help open the door to a new career. Gomez, 33, has been working part time at T.J. Maxx but recently interviewed to become a residential counselor at a family homeless shelter in Roxbury — a job that would give her regular hours, better pay, and experience in the social services field. She was honest about the fact that she was arrested for assault and battery and disorderly conduct following an altercation with a security guard when she was a “young and rebellious” 17-year-old. The charges were later dismissed.
Still, to increase her chances of getting the job, she petitioned to get her record sealed — something she only recently realized she needed to do. Because her case was dismissed, she is seeking a judge’s approval to seal the record, which means scheduling a court date first. She is hopeful it will go through by the time the shelter checks her CORI.
Dismissals or not-guilty findings can be sealed immediately, but must be done by a judge. The probation department is allowed to seal non-convictions that are more than five years old for misdemeanors, and 10 years old for felonies. Gomez, however, was unaware she didn’t have to go through the court.
“That’s why we still have people who sell drugs, that’s why women strip,” she said. “They’re afraid that because of their CORI they’re not going to be able to get a job, so in turn they continue to live that lifestyle.”
In the meantime, she is holding her breath.
“It’s unfair that something that happened 16, 17 years ago could possibly halt my life,” she said.