In the summer of 2004, a handful of hard-working former prisoners in Worcester, MA stopped accepting the life-sentence of humiliation, unemployment, and rootlessness that we had been assigned. Beginning with a few conversations, one-on-one and in small groups, we charted a course for an organization to build shared power and leadership; a campaign to break the eternal bonds of Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI); and a movement to lead our community towards true justice. Today, the organization is powerful, the campaigns are unstoppable, and the movement is taking shape.
Over the last seven years, EPOCA has steadily grown in membership, influence and vision. Today, we are a strong, diverse team of 313 members working with thousands of allies every day to win structural victories that improve our families’ lives.
In 2009, we successfully established the passing of the City of Worcester Fair CORI Practices Ordinance, one of the most effective and progressive guidelines in the country for the use of criminal records by a local government or its contractors. The Worcester Fair CORI Practices Ordinance bans the “box” or criminal history question from all applications for employment by any City department or contracting vendor and only allows the question to arise once a conditional offer of employment has been made.
And then there’s our new state law…
In 2010 we won our biggest campaign to date. The Public Safety Campaign to reform Massachusetts’ system governing the dissemination and use of Criminal Offender Record Information (“CORI”) was signed into a new law by Governor Deval Patrick on July 31, 2010. Having a criminal record has been shown to decrease a person’s chance of being called for an interview with an employer by as much as 67%. The overuse and misuse of this information, not only by employers but also by schools and landlords, has trapped millions of people in poverty and desperation.
Employers and landlords are no longer allowed to ask, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” on their initial applications. For the first time, everyone in this state has the opportunity to stand on his or her merits, interview for a job, and explain why s/he deserves a chance today. Our new, state computerized system went online in May, 2012 and the shortened sealing times have gone into effect. Thousands of people across the state are now sealing their records and starting the road to self-sufficiency.
EPOCA is pursuing a strategy of engaging leaders in other parts of the country in similar-community-based leadership development and power building campaigns among former prisoners. As we move forward, we will continue to work on the implementation of the CORI law within our home state of Massachusetts. Our members are involved in the enforcement of our city ordinance and the state law, CORI-related community outreach and are active in providing re-entry services, helping people to learn how to obtain and seal their criminal records.
We Deserve More than CHINS:
Our bill in coalition with Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (MSPCC) and the Children’s League was signed into law on August 10, 2012. We are grateful for the support of our foundation and individual donors, which made our campaign victory possible. Our new state law reforms the CHINS (Children in Need of Services) system to FACES (Families and Children Engaged in Services), a new, community-based system where children and families will receive the counseling, mentoring and other services they need rather than the criminal stigma of reporting to a probation officer. EPOCA was the only grassroots power organization engaged in the campaign, and the only organization that met face-to-face with State Representatives to tell our stories. Many of our members – and particularly our members of color – had “CHINS” on us as youths. For almost 40 years the CHINS system has criminalized young people who need help, not punishment, a probation officer and the lasting stigma of a court record. 8,000 children and youth and their families across the state annually will now receive the assistance and services they need.
FACES is a new, community-based system where children and families will receive the counseling, mentoring and other services they need rather than the criminal stigma of having a CHINS record. The FACES program is designed to address the problems underlying a young person’s negative behavior with mediation, mentorship, mental health and academic support. No longer will 8,000 children and youth (ages 6-18) annually be introduced to the criminal justice system through the CHINS process in our state. No longer will an alarming 60% or around 3,600 youths annually be removed from their homes. No longer will children be restrained in shackles, handcuffs or placed in a lock-up facility.