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BY JESSICA TOMER
CORI Sealing in Massachusetts and the Real-World Impact of Legal Volunteer Work

Law students and lawyers in Massachusetts can make a big difference by volunteering with CORI-sealing initiatives. Keep reading for a look at some recent efforts and ways students and legal professionals can get involved.

Nearly one in three American adults can attest: having a criminal record can impact your quality of life. It’s harder to get a good job, a place to live, funding for your education, and more. Even if your crime was a misdemeanor. Even if your record is 30 years old. And even if the case was dismissed or you were acquitted.

In Massachusetts many individuals with Criminal Offender Record Information, or CORI, can “seal” those records to mitigate some of the damage, which can open doors to jobs, housing, and other opportunities.

But completing the CORI-sealing process is often easier said than done. Many don’t know CORI sealing is an option, and many cannot afford a lawyer to help them through the process.   

That’s where the Massachusetts legal community comes in. From law school volunteer groups to pro bono initiatives at firms, many law students and lawyers are ready to help people seal their CORIs and move on to a better life.

Those volunteer efforts came to a head recently, when Rosie’s Place, a sanctuary for poor and homeless women in Boston, launched its new CORI Sealing Clinic with help from the firm Ropes & Gray, the nonprofit Lawyers Clearinghouse, and New England Law | Boston.

In early September of 2017, the New England Law team—including professor and director of the school’s Center for Law and Social Responsibility and faculty supervisor for its CORI Initiative David Siegel, students Kaneesha Dukes and Aidan Stuart, and alumna Dara Yaffe—helped train the Ropes & Gray lawyers who will be volunteering at Rosie’s Place going forward.

It’s the latest step in bringing legal support to those who need it most, and it’s a powerful example of the real-world impact of volunteering during law school and beyond.

The life-altering impact of a criminal record

A CORI tracks every criminal charge an individual has ever had, going back decades and including cases that were dismissed or ended with an acquittal. And these records can haunt you.

“A criminal record does not go away once a person has completed their sentence or probation,” Yaffe said. “For many of our clients, their records limit their job opportunities, access to housing, and upward mobility derived from higher levels of education and job training.”

A person with a dismissed crime might not even know how much their CORI is holding them back. “They don’t realize that the dismissal doesn’t necessarily eliminate their record,” Stuart said. “Then they go to apply for a job that could change their life, and they get denied. Or they’re trying to provide housing for their kids and that can change the rest of the lives for the kids [and they get denied].”

Federal civil rights laws offer some protections, like prohibiting employers from discriminating based on criminal records. But employers are still allowed to conduct criminal background checks, and nearly 70% do. Those employers may not know how to read a CORI, which distinguishes between convictions and non-convictions but can be quite confusing. “This can be detrimental to a client who may have been innocent according to the law but is still viewed as a criminal by contemporary society because he has a list of non-convictions,” Yaffe said.

“A lot of our clients are being discriminated against or limited in society when they haven’t necessarily done anything wrong,” Stuart said. “They have a record but most of them are non-convictions. And for me, the system shouldn’t punish people after they’ve served their time and are back out in society just trying to move forward with their lives. Generally, it’s a long list of non-convictions that is keeping them from being able to do that.”

What is CORI sealing all about?

When a CORI is “sealed,” it no longer appears as a public record or in most background checks. However, there are some exceptions; for example, agencies that screen potential daycare workers or foster/adoptive parents have access to “sealed record data,” as do the police and courts. And some convictions in Massachusetts can never be sealed, including things like resisting arrest, perjury, and witness intimidation.

Individuals with eligible offenses can petition to have their CORI sealed in one of two ways (depending on the record):

  1. Sealing via the Commissioner of Probation, which has a five-year waiting period to seal misdemeanors and 10 years to seal felonies, provided there are no convictions in between. It does not involve a visit to court; the individual just needs to send in their Petition to Seal.
  2. Sealing in court, which does not have a waiting period. The individual also needs to file a Petition to Seal, but it must be filed in the court where the offense was charged. (Courts vary in how they process CORI sealing.) The individual must also file an affidavit arguing why the CORI should be sealed.

Law student volunteers like the ones in the New England Law CORI Initiative and advocates like the folks from Rosie’s Place guide people throughout these processes, from helping clients prepare petitions and affidavits to walking them through what happens in court, so they feel more comfortable and prepared when they arrive.

But these individuals still face plenty of obstacles—including simply physically getting to court to complete the sealing process. “Those who had not yet attended court cited transportation difficulties, money problems, personal issues, and the discomfort of going into court without a lawyer/advocate,” according to the CORI Initiative’s 2015 report.

Criminal justice advocates want to see additional CORI reforms too, like further reducing the five- and 10-year waiting periods to three and seven years, respectively; excluding certain juvenile court decisions; and permitting the sealing of resisting arrest convictions.

Providing CORI-sealing assistance—at institutions such as Rosie’s Place—is a step in the right direction.

The Rosie’s Place CORI Sealing Clinic

CORIs are a big barrier for a lot of poor and homeless women who are trying to advance themselves,” said Emily Lau, Legal Program Manager at Rosie’s Place. “Although CORI laws were reformed in 2012, many women do not know about these changes or that they have the right to seal their CORI.” Lau noted that many women are also nervous about the prospect of going to court.

The CORI Sealing Clinic aims to help Rosie’s Place guests understand their rights and review their CORI in a nonjudgmental and comfortable environment. “If women are eligible to seal their CORI, we want to provide the services and resources necessary for them to overcome this barrier and move one step closer alleviating their poverty,” Lau said. “With the assistance of an attorney, women are able to articulate their story to the court and the ways their CORI is holding them back.”

Women who may be eligible to seal their CORI will be working with Ropes & Gray lawyers, who will come to Rosie’s Place at the end of each month to help guests through the process. Student volunteers from the New England Law CORI Initiative will serve as mentors for the Ropes & Gray attorneys. (Lawyers Clearing House will also be assisting with the CORI Sealing Clinic at Rosie’s Place.)

For the CORI-sealing training with Ropes & Gray, the New England Law team explained the substantive law of CORI sealing (including Commonwealth vs. Pon), as well as the fundamentals of how to read a CORI, what information lawyers need to look for, how to fill out a petition properly, how to interact with clients, and what to expect during the process. Rosie’s Place representatives also discussed how to be attuned to the special needs of trauma victims, what some of their concerns will be, and how to practice self-care.

“Professor Siegel and his team did a wonderful job of training a group of 30 transactional lawyers who were totally unfamiliar with the CORI process. He put them at ease and gave them just what they needed to tackle the legal issues and the dynamics of counseling homeless clients in a bind,” said Rosalyn Garbose Nasdor, Director of Pro Bono Legal Services at Ropes & Gray. “In just two months, Ropes & Gray lawyers have used this know how to complete two successful clinics, helping 20 clients with their records."

CORI sealing: a unique volunteering opportunity for law students

Since 2011, the CORI Initiative at New England Law has connected student volunteers with qualified clients to help them seal their CORI. This might include walking them through the process, determining their eligibility, preparing petitions and affidavits, and helping them fill out the forms, all at no cost to the client.

New England Law students Stuart and Dukes currently volunteer with the CORI Initiative, where Stuart serves as one of two co-managers. Both had summer fellowships doing CORI-related work with Greater Boston Legal Services as well. Yaffe has given several CORI-sealing trainings throughout the state. She also served as student manager for the CORI Initiative while at New England Law.

Stuart said his CORI volunteer work has already made him a more thoughtful legal professional because he’s more aware of the real-world impact of having a criminal record. “Arrests—just arresting somebody—can fundamentally change the rest of their lives,” he said. “A lot of it can depend on luck of the draw of which judge the case ends up on.”  

Under the umbrella of the New England Law Center for Law and Social Responsibility, the CORI Initiative has been growing steadily since its founding and has helped more than 300 clients as of October 2017. Many of those clients have come from Rosie’s Place, which partnered with the CORI Initiative in January 2013; Boston’s workforce development center Boston Career Link; or its longtime partner Greater Boston Legal Services, which began working with the CORI Initiative in 2011.

All CORI Initiative students are volunteers, preparing case materials and meeting with clients outside of class time. At first, the CORI Initiative was a 10-person project. Now, it has 40+ student volunteers. (Stuart cites the group’s other student co-manager, Xena Robinson, as a major contributor to that growth.) “I hope they keep on coming, because we could definitely use their help,” Stuart said. “The CORI Initiative is a place…to do meaningful work for clients whose experience with the criminal justice system has generally not been very positive.”

Yaffe joined the CORI Initiative her first semester at New England Law, because she wanted hands-on legal experience. And she found it. “By the second week of the Initiative I was already reading a CORI and drafting the petitions and affidavit for a client,” she said. A speech one of the student managers gave early on really brought the process home. “She said that it was an opportunity to help our clients get a second chance, and she mentioned that sealing a record could help a client gain access to higher education. I really connected with this statement, and still do, because I was a teacher before I went to law school and I know how important it is to make sure that young people do not fall into the school to prison pipeline, or if they do, that they have the support and personal drive to move beyond it. I knew then that the CORI Initiative was for me.”

Getting involved as a law student

Law students interested in CORI sealing and similar volunteer work are encouraged to get involved—early and often. “For 1Ls, it is a great opportunity to develop practical skills, like interviewing clients and drafting affidavits,” Yaffe said. For 2Ls and 3Ls, the work further develops lawyering skills and may lead to pro bono hours, such as those required to sit for the New York bar exam. “Most importantly, if you decide to go and learn about [CORI] sealing, you have the chance to change someone’s life for the better,” she said.

Stuart recommends law students start by going to activity fairs at their schools to discover what opportunities may be available. They may also find advocacy work through their law school clinics. Or they may get one-on-one help from a campus pro bono or volunteer coordinator.

“I didn’t set out to go to law school and change criminal records but I’m glad I’m in this position now,” Stuart said. “Just jumping in, getting used to it, getting involved in the project…that’s how you learn.”

He noted that CORI sealing inherently isn’t a complicated process, and 1Ls shouldn’t be worried about not being prepared for the volunteer work. “You don’t have to have a detailed understanding of the law in order to seal someone’s record. You just need to know the basics and go through a bit of training,” Stuart said. “At the end of the day you’ll be glad you did it, and you can make a difference in a lot of people’s lives.”

Jessica Tomer is the Web Content Manager at New England Law | Boston.

Learn more about legal volunteering opportunities at New England Law.