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"CORI reports keep some out of housing market"

Gloucester Daily Times,  page A1, May 22, 2006,  by Patricia Cronin, staff writer

Addiction, poverty, mental illness and a lack of affordable units are just a few of the barriers that can prevent the homeless of Cape Ann from finding a place to call home.

But housing advocates at the Action shelter on Main Street say the No. 1 reason people are denied public housing and housing vouchers is because of the Criminal Offender Record Information system, or CORI.

The CORI report is a background check that covers all arrests and convictions on an adult criminal record and sometimes that of a juvenile if the individual has been labeled a youthful offender.

Jim Noble, Action's shelter manager, said he and other case managers have seen old cases and misdemeanor offenses result in rejected public housing applications from the Gloucester Housing Authority. They have often had to go to appeal hearings for shelter residents to show their support.

"Some people get (the denial) overturned, and some never get overturned," Noble said.

One former shelter resident who succeeded in obtaining a Section 8 housing voucher was Ventura Guzman, who just moved into a studio apartment in February. Action representatives accompanied him to six hearings and asked to have the Housing Authority's refusal based on his CORI overturned.

"Without that support, I wouldn't have been able to get an apartment. I would still be here," he said. "I had to fight wicked hard to get out of here."

Thomas Cavanaugh, 67, who has been with Action since the shelter first opened more than 10 years ago, just received approval for senior housing in November.

He said three offenses on his CORI — an arrest for a stolen wallet, a charge related to a hypodermic needle and an arrest involving damage to a car — allowed the Gloucester Housing Authority to label him as a "dangerous person."

"I ain't been arrested in 15 years," Cavanaugh said. "If it wasn't for this place (Action), I'd be dead."

But groups such as the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association have said CORI checks are needed to protect those living in public housing and those working where a potentially dangerous person has applied to work.

"He does not believe it to be in the best interest of the public or the public safety," said Steve O'Connell, a spokesman for Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett. "His feeling is that if a Level 3 sex offender or somebody with a violent past, especially in public housing, is going to move in next to you, you should be aware of it."

William Dugan, executive director of the Housing Authority, said consideration is given to applicants based on how long ago an offense was committed and the crime involved. He said tenant history, credit problems and income are also added into the mix with the CORI information. The owner of the property where the applicant would be placed also makes the final decision to accept or deny the applicant.

By law, the person undergoing the background check has the right to dispute charges that appear on a CORI. Dugan said the individual is also invited to speak with Housing Authority staff about the circumstances and anything that has changed since.

"There's no automatic trigger of denial of anybody," he said. "It varies based on the individual."

Legal advocates say mistakes are made because those reading the CORI information are often untrained and do not understand the legal abbreviations for closed cases that ended without a conviction.

Inaccurate information or charges that were never taken to trial can end up on CORI reports, said Tony Windsor, an attorney with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. He said many who come to the institute for legal guidance have had inaccurate CORIs with dismissed cases or not guilty findings sent to the Housing Authority.

But Barry La Croix, executive director of the Criminal History Systems Board, the agency responsible for generating more than 1.4 million CORI reports each year, said those mistakes are few and far between.

He said every housing authority in the state is assigned a specific number that automatically generates only the information it is entitled to view — arrests, convictions and open cases.

Activists throughout the state have lobbied to change the way that CORIs are used by housing authorities and employers and supported the pending legislation with a rally on Boston Common on April 21.

That legislation is included in the Public Safety Act of 2006 and would require public housing authorities to grant the opportunity to contest the relevance of a CORI check, permit housing authorities to admit former offenders on a probationary basis, and change the length of time offenses remain on CORIs — misdemeanors would be sealed to non-law enforcement entities after three years and a felony after seven years.

Brandyn Keating, executive director of the Criminal Justice Police Coalition in Boston, said she has seen CORI checks force single mothers to make difficult decisions. CORI checks on teens by the Boston Housing Authority have prevented their mothers from obtaining housing or forced the eviction of an entire family, she said.

"That means a mother is forced with losing their home or losing their son," she said. "Putting kids on the street is not what we should be doing."

If you are interested in being a part of this series or have an idea for a subject for this series, contact staff writer Patricia Cronin via e-mail at pcronin@ecnnews.com or by phone at (978) 283-7000, ext. 3474.

On the record

Here's what you need to know about CORI reports:

What is a CORI?

CORI, or Criminal Offense Record Information, is a report that shows all arraignments, convictions and open criminal cases for adults or juvenile offenders.

How many?

More than 1.4 million CORI reports are generated by the state Criminal History Systems Board each year.

Who has access?

Employers, landlords, public housing authorities, colleges, law enforcement and the media. The state has rules that allow certain entities access to only a portion of CORI information.

How can I get my CORI report?

Download the request form at www.state.ma.us/chsb/cori_forms.html or call (617) 660-4640.

 

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