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Ex-convicts in Massachusetts still face tough sell in job market

Change in records law has not been a panacea

The fortunes of former convicts seeking employment have changed little since the passage of a 2010 law that overhauled the state’s criminal records system, according to a report scheduled to be released Thursday by two Boston nonprofits.

The report, written by the Boston Foundation and the Crime and Justice Institute at Community Resources for Justice, compiled the experiences of 28 employers, advocates, criminal records officials, landlords, and legislators. It gives a first look at the real-world effects of changes to the Criminal Offender Record Information system, widely known by the acronym CORI, which had been lauded by activists as a game-changer for people with criminal records looking to reintegrate into society.


The law’s “Ban the Box’’ provision prevents employers from asking about criminal records on initial job applications. That has allowed more former convicts to get interviews, but has seldom translated into jobs, the report said.

“Advocates felt that this only delays the process of rejection and leaves people with a [criminal record] feeling more hopeless,’’ the report said. “The barrier to employment has simply shifted from the application to the interview.’’

After two years of debate and lobbying, Governor Deval Patrick signed the CORI legislation in August 2010. Along with “Ban the Box,’’ the law also shortened the period criminal offenses remain on a CORI report before being sealed.

The Boston Foundation will present the report Thursday at a public forum at its Arlington Street office. Leaders of local organizations that support overhauling CORI will discuss the report’s findings.

Len Engel, managing associate for policy at the Crime and Justice Institute, said the report highlights the need for government and employers to better police and adhere to changes in the criminal record system. It also shows the importance of educating former criminal offenders about their rights under the new legislation, he said.


“People think that when you change a law, the game is over; you’re done,’’ Engel said. “But that, really, is only half the battle. The other half is the implementation of the law.’’

The report outlines a litany of problems that persist - and, in some cases, have arisen - since the law’s passage.

Even when criminal history boxes are removed from applications and former offenders make the first cut, that is no guarantee they will get a job. Employers who do a record check may discover an applicant’s criminal past, and that discovery may wind up costing the candidate the job, the report said.

Some former offenders remain unaware that most employers are not allowed to ask about criminal records on job applications. Others do not know that they have a right to report employers whose applications fail to comply. Some mistakenly believe that the 2010 law prevents potential employers from ultimately obtaining criminal records.

Additonally, many employers have not updated their job applications to reflect the change in the law, including some state government agencies, the report said. Businesses that operate nationally, using one application countrywide, often fail to remove the criminal record box within Massachusetts, the report said.

In other cases, nationwide applications include three options job-seekers can check. They can check a box saying they have been convicted of a crime, a box saying they have not, or a third box indicating they live in Massachusetts and choose not to answer. Checking that third box, the report said, sometimes leads potential employers to assume a criminal past.


Lyn A. Levy - executive director of Span Inc., an organization that aids former prisoners transitioning into society - said she had not yet seen the report, but that its findings ring familiar.

“Having a [criminal record] is still one of the biggest deterrents to effective rehabilitation for men and women coming out of incarceration, even with Ban the Box, which is a wonderful thing,’’ Levy said. “It’s just not enough.’’

State Representative James R. Miceli, a Wilmington Democrat and longtime opponent of overhauling the criminal records system, said he was disappointed in the report’s conclusions. He said too much of the report focused on helping former offenders suppress their criminal history.

“If you’re making it harder for folks to obtain information about people they’re thinking about hiring, you’re not doing a service to the public,’’ Miceli said.

Steve O’Neill, executive director at Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement, said some of the organization’s members have been disappointed to see that employers have denied them a job because of their criminal history, even after the 2010 law was passed.

“The framework is there, and it’s a great framework, but the problem is its implementation,’’ O’Neill said. “Our men have been really disappointed at the number of employers still using that question on their application.’’

Advocates of overhauling criminal records have hopes for a new online system, iCORI, set to debut this month. The system will allow employers to obtain criminal records from the state more quickly than through private vendors and will automatically exclude most felony convictions a decade after the former offender’s release.


But O’Neill said the steep price of those state-generated reports, $25 per file, will force employers to continue using private vendors who provide criminal background checks and are not required to omit long-ago criminal offenses.

The few members who have been able to find employment, O’Neill said, have been able to do so by talking about their criminal offenses in an interview.

“Our members are dynamite people, dedicating their lives to volunteering and working, but they often don’t even get a second look,’’ O’Neill said. “Even moving that question one step later in the conversation - I think it does help.’’

Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.