In 1972, the state passed a law relating to criminal records. Criminal records, which come from court cases, are referred to in the law as "Criminal Offender Record Information" (CORI, pronounced COR'-EE).35Under the law, only certain people and certain types of agencies are allowed to have access to criminal records. The law is enforced by a government agency called the Department of Criminal Justice Information Services (DCJIS).
One of the original purposes of the CORI law was to protect the privacy of people with criminal records so that they would have a chance to turn over a new leaf. Over the last 30 years, however, the law itself and the way it is administered have gone through dramatic changes that have had a generally bad impact on the privacy of former offenders, including those who apply for rental housing.
Who Can Get Access to Criminal Records
Under the CORI law, if you are indigent, you may get a copy of your own CORI for free, but you must fill out and send in with your CORI request form a completed Affidavit of Indigency. 36See a copy of the personal CORI Request Form or you can use DCJIS new online CORI request service, iCORI.
You may also give written permission for someone else, such as an attorney, other advocate, or family member, to get a copy of your CORI.
Sometimes a landlord will ask a person applying for housing to get a copy of his or her own CORI and bring it to the landlord. This is illegal.37 If a landlord asks you to get your own CORI, you should tell her that such a request is illegal, and that, if she wants access to your criminal record, she should request it from the CHSB—if she has been certified for access. See Private Landlords' Access to CORI in this chapter.
Public Housing Authority Access to CORI
Public housing authorities have access to CORI for screening applicants for public housing38 and for Section 8 rental assistance.39 They can request a CORI report for each member of a household who is 17 or older.
State Public Housing
A public housing authority, when screening you for public housing funded by the state Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), must follow the state law and DHCD regulations as to how it makes its screening decision. The housing authority may, for instance, disqualify you if, in prior housing, you disturbed a neighbor, caused damage or destruction to property, or engaged in criminal activity, or if you are a current illegal user of drugs.40 This information may be indicated on a CORI report.
The state law does, however, provide you with some due process rights and a chance to prevent, or reverse, a denial of housing assistance based on your CORI. Prior to disqualifying you, the housing authority must permit you to show that there are mitigating circumstances as to why the behavior in question will not likely recur in the future.
Mitigating circumstances may include any rehabilitation efforts, such as current attendance at or completion of a substance abuse treatment program. The housing authority must also consider:
- The severity of the behavior;
- The amount of time which has passed since the behavior occurred;
- The degree of danger, if any, to others if the conduct recurred;
- The inconvenience that recurrence would cause the housing authority; and
- The likelihood that the behavior will substantially improve in the future.41
If the housing authority decides, nevertheless, to disqualify you because of information in your CORI, it must give you notice explaining the decision and a chance to have a "private conference" with representatives of the housing authority. This amounts to an informal hearing, where you can be represented by a lawyer or other advocate. If, after an informal hearing with the housing authority, the housing authority continues to deny you admission into state public housing, you may have this adverse decision reviewed by DHCD.42
Federal Public Housing
If the housing authority is making a screening decision about admission to a public housing unit which is funded by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) or about the award of a federal Section 8 voucher, it must follow the applicable HUD regulations.
Under HUD's regulations (referred to as the "one-strike-you're-out" regulations), the housing authority may prohibit the admission of a household if, for instance, any member "has engaged in during a reasonable time before the admissions decision," drug-related or violent criminal activity or criminal activity that would threaten the health, safety, or peace of other residents, the housing authority, or its employees or contractors.43
One good requirement in HUD's regulations is that if the housing authority has obtained CORI "showing that a household member has been convicted of a crime" that is relevant to the screening, the housing authority must, before making a final decision to deny you admission to federal public housing:
- Notify you that it plans to deny you admission,
- Provide you with a copy of the information it used to make the decision, and
- Give you an opportunity to dispute the accuracy and relevance of this information.44
While there is no explicit provision that the housing authority must consider "mitigating circumstances" (as they must do for admission into state-funded housing), you can still try to persuade them that there are mitigating circumstances that they should consider which make the conviction information less relevant than recent good behavior.
Private landlords (whether individuals or organizations) may get access to CORI under the Criminal History Systems Board's certification process, whereby the Board grants access if it determines that the landlord's need for the CORI outweighs the privacy interest of the CORI subject.45 (This is called the "Section 172(c) certification process.")
If a private landlord gets a CORI report from the CHSB, that landlord is subject to the same due process requirements that all organizations and people getting access to CORI must follow. This means that if the landlord is inclined to reject a person because of something in the CORI report, the applicant must be invited in for a private meeting with the landlord who must share a copy of the CORI report with the applicant and give that applicant an opportunity to dispute the accuracy and relevance of what is in the CORI.46
If you know the landlord will do a criminal background check with the CHSB or a commercial background-checking organization and are asked to supply certain personal information and to sign an acknowledgment, ask the landlord to review the CORI or background information with you so that you can discuss its accuracy and relevance. If you get a meeting with the landlord and the CORI report accurately lists convictions of serious crimes, try to show how your recent activity indicates that the former criminal behavior will not recur.
The General Public's Access to CORI
As a result of extensive changes made in the CORI law in and after 1990, members of the general public may, for any reason, for a fee (generally $30),47 get access to the CORI of a particular person if that person was convicted of a crime punishable by imprisonment for five or more years or is presently or was recently in prison, incarcerated under a sentence, or under probation or on parole.48
What You Can Do to Protect Your Rights
Because inaccurate and misleading information can be recorded in a CORI report, you should personally request your own CORI before applying for housing that requires a criminal history background check. See the section in this chapter called Getting Your Own Records.
Sometimes CORI information is incorrect because someone else used your Social Security Number or has a name that is the same or similar to yours. If this happens to you, you can contact the CORI Project at the Legal Advocacy and Resource Center at 617-603-1700 and ask to talk with a CORI Project staff person. Advocates there may be able to help you correct your CORI. If a housing authority or any other organization or person gives out your CORI records without your permission and thereby violates the law, you may file a complaint with the Criminal History Systems Board, the government agency responsible for enforcing CORI, 49 by writing a letter addressed to:
Criminal History Systems Board
200 Arlington Street
Chelsea, MA 02150
or calling: 617-660-4640.
You have a right to request that information in your CORI that is inaccurate, incomplete, or misleading be corrected if the court which created the information will not make the change.50
If your CORI relates only to illegal drug possession (not illegal drug distribution), see the section called Discrimination Based on Disability in Chapter 7: Discrimination.
35. Generally, G.L. c. 6, §§167-178, as inserted by c. 805 of the Acts of 1972, and subsequent enactments.
36. G.L. c. 6, §175, 1st sentence; and G.L. c. 6, §172A.
37. G.L. c. 6, §172, 5th ¶, 3rd sentence.
38. G.L. c. 6, §168, 3rd ¶, 3rd sentence.
39. By Board certifications in 1992 and 1997 under G.L. c. 6, §172, clause (c). See also CHSB regulations, 803 C.M.R. §5.
40. G.L. c. 121B, §32, 11th (unnumbered) paragraph, subparagraphs (a), (b) & (d); and 760 C.M.R. §§5.08(1)(a), (b) & (k).
41. 760 C.M.R. §5.08(2). Prior to disqualifying an applicant, a housing authority " . . . shall permit the applicant to show mitigating circumstances, which may include rehabilitation or rehabilitating efforts, sufficient so that when the potentially disqualifying behavior is weighed against the mitigating circumstances, the [housing authority] is reasonably certain that the applicant or household member will not engage in any similar conduct in the future." (Emphasis added.) The housing authority is to consider the severity of the conduct and the danger it caused, how much time has elapsed, the inconvenience to the housing authority, and the likelihood of its recurring. See also G.L. c. 121B, §32, 12th (unnumbered) paragraph.
42. 760 C.M.R. §5.13. Though this provision for DHCD "review" is vaguely worded, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held, in Madera v. Secretary of EOCD , 418 Mass. 452 (1994), that the person seeking review is entitled to a full-blown adjudicatory hearing before a hearing officer or panel of what is now the DHCD (with the possibility of a further appeal, under G.L. c. 30A, §14, to the Superior Court).
43. 24 C.F.R. §5.855(a).
44. 24 C.F.R. §5.903(f). " . . . [T]he PHA must notify the household of the proposed action to be based on the information and must provide the subject of the record and the applicant . . . a copy of such information and an opportunity to dispute the accuracy and relevance of the information . . . before the denial of admission. . . ." This regulation, in Part 5 of 24 C.M.R., and related provisions in 9 other parts, were published in final form in the Federal Register of 5/24/01. There is also, in another part of the regulations, an absolute, lifetime ban from federal public housing of anyone who was previously convicted of manufacturing methamphetamine while a tenant of federal public housing.
45. Although there is a special §172(c) certification process for individuals or organizations to get access to CORI, the Criminal History Systems Board had a practice of denying private landlords' requests for §172(c) certification. To find out whether a landlord has received certified access to CORI, you can call the CHSB legal office (617-660-4654) or make a public records request (see How to Get Public Records section in this chapter).
46803 C.M.R. §6.11(2).
47. G.L. c. 6, §172A. Government agencies and housing authorities do not have to pay the fee.
48. G.L. c. 6, §172, 7th (unnumbered) paragraph.
49. G.L. c. 6, §178 makes it a crime to give out CORI, except as provided by the law; and G.L. c. 6, §177 provides a civil remedy for violating the CORI law.
50. G.L. c. 6, §175, 1st ¶, 2nd and subsequent sentences.
Produced by Ernest Winsor Created July 2008