Darrin Howell, a former inmate who couldn’t find a job when he was freed, is now a high-profile advocate for reforming the laws that helped block people like him from finding work after they earned their freedom.
Prior to his two years behind bars, he had held temporary clerical or administrative jobs at a hospital, a bank, and an insurance company. But after his release from the Suffolk County House of Correction, those kinds of places wouldn’t touch him, Howell says.
Adding insult to injury, he says one employer, upon learning of his criminal past, even had him train his replacement, and then fired him.
So when Howell speaks of the disappointing results of CORI reform, he’s speaking with some authority. CORI is, of course, shorthand for the state’s criminal offenders’ records law, which some had long argued constituted a lifelong barrier to gaining jobs and housing. The 2009 reforms sealed prison records five years after the release of people in on a misdemeanor, and 10 years for those convicted of felonies.
CORI reform also banned Massachusetts employers from asking applicants about criminal histories. But they can still get that information other ways.
“When they get to choose between someone with a record and someone who doesn’t have one, they just might choose the person without a record,” said Howell, now a labor organizer.
The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston just released a report on the impact of the state’s CORI reforms on employment. It concluded that the privacy protections for former inmates haven’t helped ex-convicts find work. In fact, the employment of people with criminal records has fallen slightly since the reforms went into effect.
There isn’t a conclusive explanation for why this is so. Some people believe the reforms did not go far enough. Others attribute it to stubborn reluctance on the part of employers. Others say the issue is a combination of both, plus a sluggish job market for low-skilled workers. Clearly, it is a more complicated problem than advocates realized.
Horace Small, head of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods and a driving force behind CORI reform, ruefully admits it hasn’t worked out as envisioned.
“What I know for sure is that we went into it for all the right reasons,” Small said on Tuesday. “What I didn’t anticipate was the lack of jobs, or how industrialization and how modern technology has come into play to eliminate the kind of jobs that poor and working-class people used to do. Giving people their freedom back is one thing, but having people prepared is quite another.”
There are proposals currently floating around the State House to further reduce the time before prison records are sealed and to invest more in job training. Both proposals would probably help, as would a reduction in minimum mandatory sentences.
Darren Howell says his criminal career was brief — and typical. At 21, with twin babies to feed and money short, he made a series of bad decisions that followed him for years.
“The streets are always hiring,” he said. “That’s the reality.”
He was one of the lucky ones who landed on his feet. Then-Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner hired him on his staff at City Hall in 2006, where he frequently spoke at rallies calling for reform. From there, he moved into union work. Howell even made an unsuccessful run for state legislature, and he says he may run again someday.
But he hasn’t forgotten the hopelessness he felt while struggling to find work after spending time behind bars.
“Hope plays a huge role,” he said. “I had hope that there was a light at the end of the road, but I didn’t know where the light was going to come from.”
The notion of helping ex-offenders start over remains a sound one. Almost all of the people imprisoned in Massachusetts will eventually be set free. But restarting their lives is still a struggle.