BOSTON – Gov. Deval L. Patrick on Friday signed a new law that allows employers to obtain criminal records of job applicants over the Internet for the first time, overhauls the state’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws for certain drug offenses and bans sex offenders from driving ice cream trucks.
The new law makes significant changes to the state’s Criminal Offender Record Information system and expands the number of people who can use the system. In a key move to help ex-offenders, the bill cuts the time for sealing felonies from 15 years to 10 years, and for misdemeanors from 10 years to five.
“This legislation brings our outdated criminal history database into the 21st century, ensures law enforcement agencies, employers and housing providers have access to accurate and complete records in appropriate circumstances and helps people get back to work so they can support their families,” said Patrick, who was cheered by hundreds of people when he signed the new law at the Freedom House in Boston, which offers education and anti-poverty programs.
According to the new law, employers, public and private housing providers, volunteer organizations and state and municipal licensing authorities will be cleared to use a credit card over the Internet to access criminal records of applicants for a fee. The new state Internet site must be ready in 21 months. The fee, currently $15, could be $20 with discounts for large employers.
Right now, certain employers and others need to apply to a state board to obtain criminal records. Only 3 to 5 percent of private-sector employers currently have access to the data base, with use largely limited to nursing homes, schools and others dealing with vulnerable people said John Grossman, undersecretary for the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security. The system is so cumbersome that most private employers use outside agencies to obtain criminal records and the information can sometimes be outdated or inaccurate, he said.
A change in the state’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws will cover only people convicted of lower-level drug offenses and serving 2.5 years or less at a county jail, not anyone in a state prison.
Under the change, these offenders will be eligible for parole after they serve one half of their sentence, ensuring that they receive supervision and training when they leave prison, Grossman said. Such convicts currently serve the mandatory sentence and are released with no restrictions or training because they have no parole, according to Grossman.
Offenders won’t be able to obtain parole if they used violence or guns, directed drug activities of others or sold to minors.
Barbara J. Dougan, a director in Massachusetts for Families Against Mandatory Minimums in Washington, praised the change, saying the current law frequently punishes low level offenders the same way as drug kingpins. The organization said it is the first easing of the state’s rigid drug sentencing laws since they were established nearly 30 years ago.
The new law, given final approval by the state Legislature a week ago, prohibits employment applications from including questions about someone’s criminal record, but employers are allowed to ask about that during job interviews. This “ban the box” provision is seen as a way of giving ex-offenders a greater chance at obtaining a job.
The state House of Representatives voted 131-22 in support of the law; the Senate, 30-9.
In cracking down on sex offenses, the law requires GPS tracking of homeless sex offenders and requires such convicts to verify registration data and appear at local police departments every 30 days, down from the current 45 days.
According to Grossman, the law calls for new regulations on ice cream truck drivers and bans sex offenders from becoming drivers.
Drivers and ice cream truck vendors would need to place a municipal permit on the vehicle’s windshield. Fines would be $500 for each day the permits are not displayed. Drivers would need to have criminal background checks and would need to be fingerprinted to obtain a municipal permit.
Kimberly A. Desy, owner of an ice cream business in Sturbridge, said all drivers of her trucks must pass state criminal background checks, but not all drivers undergo the same checks.
“There’s a lot of what we call rogue ice cream trucks out there,” Desy said.
Activists from the Springfield area said the new law will give offenders greater opportunities for finding jobs and improving their lives. During recent years, the local activists joined others around the state in a major push for the new law.
“This new law is going to change lives, especially for young people,” said Daniel Perez, 50, of Holyoke, who was among about a dozen members of Neighbor to Neighbor in Springfield attending the signing ceremony.
The Associated Industries of Massachusetts, a Boston-based association of employers, also supports the bill and urged Patrick to approve it.