Police officials ask change in records law

By Maria Cramer
Globe Staff / May 19, 2010

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Several top law enforcement officials endorsed a legislative effort yesterday to change a state law that allows employers and landlords access to criminal records of job applicants and potential tenants.

The officials — including the Suffolk County sheriff and prosecutor and the Boston police commissioner, as well as police chiefs from Brookline, Chelsea, and the MBTA — gathered at the State House to urge lawmakers to change aspects of the state’s criminal records system that make it difficult for former convicts to find employment and housing. The legislation is supported by Governor Deval Patrick and has been passed by the Senate. The House is expected to debate the measure soon.

Advocates are eager to win passage this year of legislation that would limit how long certain criminal records are accessible to the public.

“Police chiefs don’t sign on to this bill easily, because it appears to be soft on crime,’’ said Boston Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis. “But it’s anything but soft on crime. . . . It’s smart on crime.’’

If more former offenders have the opportunity to find work, that could lead to less recidivism and improved public safety, Davis said.

“It will decrease the amount of victims in the Commonwealth if we pass this bill,’’ he said.

Davis said he was walking through downtown recently when he was stopped by a man in his 30s who told him he could not get a job because of his criminal record. As the man told his story, he burst into tears, Davis said.

“ ‘Keep trying. . . . We’re trying to change the law,’ ’’ Davis recalled telling him. “That’s all I could say.’’

The legislation approved by the Senate would prohibit employers from eliminating candidates at the start of an application process because they have a criminal record. It would also allow misdemeanor records to be sealed five years after final disposition of a case, instead of the current 10, and felony records to be sealed in 10 years, instead of the current 15. The criminal records of murderers and sex offenders would remain accessible to the public throughout the offender’s life.

The measure would also allow former convicts to review their criminal records at no charge, would increase penalties for the deliberate misuse of such records, and would create a new offense for using the records to harass former convicts.

Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley said the changes passed by the Senate strike a balance between an employer’s right to know about a prospective employee and the needs of a former convict looking for work. The Senate bill allows employers better access to criminal records information that would be more up to date, more clearly explained, and available online.

“The rights of employers to critical information, the hope of ex-offenders to earn, and I stress the word earn, and the all-important mandate to promote the public safety [are] not mutually exclusive,’’ Conley said.

Suffolk Sheriff Andrea J. Cabral, who runs the county’s two jails, said the cost of incarcerating people makes changes vital. It costs about $42,000 a year to house an inmate in Suffolk jails, she said.

“This is so simple and so cost-efficient,’’ Cabral said of the proposed changes. “This bill has to be passed, because at the rate we’re going . . . we will bankrupt our system if we continue to spend the money that it costs to incarcerate people.’’

The state’s Criminal Offender Record Information system was created in 1972 to control the release of information about a person’s record. Initially, access was limited to law enforcement agencies, but since then it has become available to the public.

Convicts and even people who were accused of crimes but not convicted say the records make it difficult to get decent jobs.

Such records are often difficult to understand, police said. For example, it can be hard to determine how an allegation was resolved.

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