New Law in Massachusetts Provides Help for Inmates after Release

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has signed an anti-crime law that is designed to increase the opportunities for inmates to obtain valuable education and training. The ultimate goal, of course, is to improve an inmate's chances of making a successful transition from prison.

The law addresses sentencing reform by allowing parole eligibility for some House-of-Correction inmates serving time for non-violent drug offenses. If such an inmate has served one-half of his mandatory minimum sentence - and no aggravating factors are found - he may see the parole board to petition for his release.

Before granting parole, the Parole Board may require enhanced supervision, including the use of a satellite-tracking device. The law will give inmates serving sentences for non-violent drug offenses an opportunity to participate in education and training. This important aspect of rehabilitation was often missing during a period of incarceration. Without it, many inmates stood little chance of succeeding on the outside.

Law enforcement and other proponents agree this is one way to fight recidivism among former convicts, who face enormous challenges when attempting to find employment after being released from prison. Gov. Patrick said during the signing ceremony, "What we do with this bill is reaffirm an old idea inherent in our American character, that everybody deserves a second chance."

The legislation is part of a nationwide trend in reforming mandatory minimums and other aspect of drug sentencing. Over the years, the studies show that mandatory minimum sentences do not reduce either drug offenses or drug dependency and addiction. Even the U.S. Congress has taken steps to reform drug sentences, addressing the disparity between crack and powder cocaine cases.

The governor noted, "The best way to break the cycle of recidivism is to make it possible for people to get a job." In addition to helping inmates obtain transitional help, it modernizes the criminal offender records information system (CORI). The reform expands access to criminal record information for prospective employers and housing providers on an internet-based system holding the most accurate and relevant information.

The law will now limit employers from asking about an applicant's criminal history on a preliminary written job application. This will permit people with a criminal record to receive more consideration during the job interview process.

Many employers would have discarded any application from someone with a criminal record, before even speaking with the person. This denies a former convict the chance to explain his past. This also denies employers the opportunity to hire a potentially valuable employee who has truly reformed.

The change brought about by this new law, coupled with improved access and a more accurate system, strikes a proper balance. Employers will now have confidence that they know the history of their job applicants. Job applicants with a criminal record, however, will receive a chance to make their case with a prospective employer. In the end, both sides will make sure that the employer has an accurate picture of the applicant's background.