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There is an active public debate with respect to the longevity of criminal records. Many advocates are concerned that even a minor crime, committed 20 years ago, can follow a person for the rest of their life. It can limit their job opportunities, marginalizing them and perhaps making it more likely they will return to the criminal sector. This can happen even for incidents such as arrests or dismissed charges, where the accused may be innocent of a crime.
On the federal level there are some limitations imposed by the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) with respect to the use of criminal background checks in pre-employment screening. In general, events that did not lead to a conviction cannot be reported for more than 7 years. However, many states have rules of their own that restrict things further.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Massachusetts is one of the strictest in terms of limiting employer access to criminal records. Their Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) database is not made available in digital form, and as a result they are one of only 2 states not available in our criminal record database. (Hawaii is the other state.) Apparently, Masschusetts is considering restricting criminal record access even further.
I think there is a good case to be made for expunging arrests or dismissed charges from a person’s record, if it did not lead to a criminal conviction. But there is a real danger in hiding criminal convictions. A history of violence, theft, or drug use is going to be a problem for virtually any employer. Safety of co-workers and customers is a real concern. Unless someone has a job with absolutely no human contact whatsoever — stuffing envelopes? — a background check is an appropriate safety measure for their employer.
The push for limiting CORI in Masschusetts has gained force with the election of governor Deval Patrick, although changes are likely to face stiff resistance from the business community. Massachusetts officials should be given pause by the case of Joseph MacDonald, a state employee who allegedly ran down a 64 year-old woman with a city snowplow. He had been convicted of drug possession 3 times and had his driver’s license suspended 7 times — attributes that would have prevented him being placed behind the wheel of heavy equipment in most organizations. But these facts were not known, because Mayor Thomas Merino decided in 2005 that criminal background checks would not be run on city job applicants, and no questions about criminal convictions asked, unless the applicant would be dealing with the elderly or children. Despite the terrible result, Merino says that he has not changed his mind on the city’s background check policy. Menacing the standard adult population is apparently OK.