Safety Net Project Director Julie McCormack and the students working with her on criminal record sealing (a mostly administrative process before the Massachusetts Probation Service) have taken advantage of the enforced slow-down brought about by COVID19 to develop audio-visual self-help materials for veterans and others seeking to remove the stigma of long ago involvement in the criminal justice system. These materials will be shared with Veterans Advocacy groups and community activists over the coming month.
Below, Lowry Yankwich, a second-year student at Harvard Law School, reflects on how the pandemic provided an opportunity to use online tools to help individuals interested in sealing their criminal records.
The Best Laid Plans
By Lowry Yankwich
The work of CORI Sealing Initiative of the Safety Net Project has been growing steadily since launching in June 2019 – serving almost 50 clients in sealing their criminal records in our first eight months. We had so many plans for continued growth through the Spring 2020 semester: attend community meetings across Boston to spread the word; hold workshops to help parents seal their records; guide adult students toward a new chapter in their lives. Then came coronavirus. Our best-laid plans were whisked away in a sudden gust, and we were stuck at home, left wondering what to do.
Everything would have to change. The workshops we were going to do all got cancelled, and our partner organizations said they didn’t have bandwidth for remote workshops. More importantly, the bread and butter of our work – actually sealing records – might not be possible. Whenever we help someone request a copy of their criminal record, or CORI, we notarize their signature. That’s easy when we’re at the Legal Services Center office, because many staff members are notaries. Well, what happens when everything must be done online? That gets a lot harder. Can we use Skype with clients and have them hold up a photo ID? What if they don’t have access to video software?
As the questions mounted, we came to realize that there was at least one thing we could do now: guide people through sealing their criminal records themselves. As it turns out, it’s straightforward to seal your CORI, as long as you’re eligible. In Massachusetts, you’re eligible to seal your CORI if you have no ongoing “waiting periods” from different charges on your record. For misdemeanors, the waiting period is three years; for felonies, seven years; for certain sexual offenses, longer. Once the waiting period associated with your conviction has elapsed, you can seal your CORI by sending in a single sheet of paper with a few check marks and a couple of signatures. Many people have lingering criminal records from their distant past. They want to move on with their lives, and not have their record padding alongside them like an opportunity stealing dementor.
Despite the fact that CORI sealing can be relatively simple, many people don’t know that, and are understandably daunted by the process. To help people understand the process, The CORI Sealing team (Safety Net director, Julie McCormack, 2L Lowry Yankwich whose advanced clinical work is focused on CORI sealing, Harvard College senior and prospective HLS 1L Niko Paladino and multilingual Wellesley College junior Kayla Nakeeb) are making a series of short videos that explain how to seal your CORI, step by step. In one video, we show people how to request a copy of their CORI online. In another, we show them how to interpret their CORI, which is filled with cryptic abbreviations and numbers. In another, we provide an overview of petitioning to seal a record, and how to figure out if you’re eligible to do so.
Normally, we would be hosting walk-in hours at the clinic. We’d be looking up CORIs, filing petitions, and counseling clients on whether to appear in court to seal non-convictions. We’d be sitting through those court sessions, and celebrating with clients when their record is sealed.
But now’s not a normal time. And until we’re back, why not make a few movies? Now streaming on Netflix! Not really, but still, binge away! Our first one is available below and on our CORI page, and we will be adding additional sections throughout May and June. Check them out, and please spread the word!