Corey Kurtz, staff at Neighbor to Neighbor Massachusetts, wrote this post reflecting on the process she and her colleagues undertook to realize this bill.
Last week in Massachusetts I saw something you don’t see every day in the world of social justice organizing: the “powers that be” bent to the will of a very smart, strategic and passionate grassroots movement in an election year, and in the midst of intense political infighting.
As a former community organizer who has been a part of more losing battles than winning ones, it was an inspiring thing to watch.
Employer access to CORI (Criminal Offender Record Information) has long been a barrier to jobs and housing for people with criminal records. For over a decade, activists have fought to pass a bill that would limit public access to CORI files. The bill was filed countless times, with little movement. Every time the issue has reached the public, images of prisoners in orange jumpsuits have quickly dominated the television coverage and right-wing talk radio has spread racism and hate over the airwaves.
However, over the past three years, CORI reform advocates were able to unite a powerful grassroots base with a diverse coalition to move the bill forward. Thousands of people with CORI records marched, rallied, lobbied and campaigned for supportive candidates and against opposing ones. We shifted the public debate to be one about helping employers, cost-savings, and public safety. Law enforcement officials, employers, and even the business lobby all came out in favor of the bill, and Governor Deval Patrick, made the issue a priority. Still, without final approval before the end of the legislative session, the bill would have died.
Activists came to the State House throughout the month of July, traveling two hours each way in some cases, to be there and bear witness as the clock ticked down on a decade-long effort. Standing in the halls outside the House of Representatives and Senate chambers, lobbying our legislators yet again, and sitting for hours in the galleries overlooking the legislature, our navy and gold-colored T-shirts stood out against all the lobbyists’ suits.
During the final days of the session, the debate over allowing casinos into Massachusetts deadlocked the House and Senate. Down to the wire and trying to reach some agreement, they decided to work on Saturday, July 31st. As midnight approached that last day, it became clear that agreement on casinos was going up in smoke and the legislature was not very happy about it.
Despite the rancor and frustration, despite the fact that it’s an election year, at 11:00 p.m., in the final hour of the legislative session, they quietly voted to pass CORI reform in a landslide 138 to 17 vote.
With the passage of this bill, Massachusetts has become only the second state in the nation, after Hawaii, to prohibit both public and private employers from asking about a person’s criminal history on an initial job application. This is a huge victory that will impact hundreds of thousands of people in the state who have CORI records, and can serve as a model for other states.
This was a show of grassroots power unlike any I have ever seen. While we have many battles left to fight, this one renewed my belief that, with the right strategy, organized people can win over organized money any day.