Convictions shouldn’t preclude all casino jobs

Finding a legislative fix may make for interesting politics

THE MGM SPRINGFIELD CASINO is scheduled to open late next year, and casino managers are worrying about how they’ll fill all the jobs that will need filling.

The big problem: a section of the 2011 casino law that requires the Massachusetts Gaming Commission to prohibit the employment of any casino job applicant who was convicted of a felony or other crime involving embezzlement, theft, fraud, or perjury during the previous 10 years.  This rule, it appears, covers all casino job applicants — not just the managers within the gaming area, but also those who make up the category of “service employees” –restaurant workers, parking lot attendants, hotel housekeepers, and many other similar positions.

MGM executives have been pressing the Gaming Commission to find a way around this apparent prohibition so that they may offer these service employee jobs to applicants who may also have criminal records that are disqualifying.  MGM Springfield President Mike Mathis has said that without some change it will be impossible to find enough job applicants who pass the current stringent check. Mathis has the support of labor, social service, and community groups who have been advocating for years for criminal justice reforms and the increased employment prospects that ought to result. Mathis also has the support of Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, who conveyed his community’s message: “We all know people — whether family or friends — that have made some mistakes, but have done the right thing for a number of years.  And if they’ve earned the opportunity, they should be given an opportunity.”

When you consider our state’s larceny laws, it’s no surprise that so many of the people who would eagerly apply for a casino service job have a criminal record that would be disqualifying because of a felony conviction or a theft conviction. In Massachusetts, a felony conviction and a theft conviction are quite often the same thing. The theft of property worth more than $250 is a felony here under a law that hasn’t been updated since 1987. Connecticut, a more enlightened state in this regard, amended its law in 2009 and now theft is prosecuted as a felony there only when the property stolen is worth more than $2,000.

One consequence of a felony conviction in Massachusetts is a waiting period of 10 years before the record can be sealed and made unavailable for a potential employer’s examination. Updating our larceny law for inflation (as 35 other states have done since 2001) is one step that’s necessary to decrease the number of casino service job seekers who are subject to automatic rejection.  The Senate passed legislation updating the larceny statute in March of last year, but the House never took up the bill. (Any fears on the part of lawmakers that such an update might be perceived as soft on crime and, therefore, politically risky should certainly be calmed by the fact that even the very conservative American Legislative Exchange Council is on board — in fact, they are proposing model legislation on this subject.)

Over the past several months, the Gaming Commission has paid considerable attention to MGM’s request for relief. The commission’s legal staff first entertained the casino’s argument that, because other sections of the casino law give sufficient discretion concerning the scope of the background checks that must be conducted, the commission could, in practical terms, override this prohibition. In May, however, the commission concluded that a legislative solution would be necessary to solve the problem, and so commission Chairman Stephen Crosby inquired of the Legislature whether or not the strict background check language had really been intended to apply to casino service employees, and, if not, to gauge the willingness of the Legislature to amend that section of the gaming law.

Crosby reported back at a commission meeting in early June that he had learned with great confidence (and with a level of name-naming and specificity that rarely becomes part of a public record) that, on the House side, Speaker Robert DeLeo; Rep. Joseph Wagner, the cochair of the Economic Development Committee; and House Counsel Jim Kennedy had all concurred that it was never the intention of the House that the strict background check requirement cover casino service employees and that the House would move as quickly as possible to amend the statute, probably as part of a supplemental budget. Typically the Legislature enacts a supplemental budget a month or so after the end (on June 30) of the prior fiscal year. The pledge of the House leaders, as well as Rep. Wagner’s pledge that solving MGM’s problem was a “personal mission,” may have served as the basis for Crosby’s hope that the commission would have a timetable for a legislative fix within a few weeks.

Crosby found the Senate to be more circumspect about his request, offering him no comments for the record.  It’s well known that criminal justice reform is a high priority for the Senate, and to judge from comments to the Valley Advocate on the subject of MGM’s request, the Senate would prefer more comprehensive criminal justice reform (on a longer timetable, if necessary) to a very quick fix on this one issue by way of a supplemental budget.  Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, for example, has said one of the Legislature’s main goals is to enact criminal justice reform in Massachusetts by the end of the current legislative session, or July 31, 2018. He specifically listed mandatory minimum sentencing laws and expungement laws as needing changes. Similarly, Sen. Eric Lesser (whose district includes part of Springfield) endorsed legislative changes to criminal justice laws, including MGM’s request, “in the next year.”

So here we are. The House has promised the Gaming Commission that it will act as soon as possible on MGM’s specific request regarding felony and theft convictions (possibly in a supplemental budget to be passed in the very near future), but it has been guarded about the scope and timetable it favors on broader reforms. Comprehensive criminal justice reform is near the top of the agenda in the Senate, which, as noted, endorsed a fix to our state’s outdated larceny statute during the last session.  An advocate such as MGM Springfield, an employer needing a workforce of a couple thousand people starting in late 2018 and enjoying considerable community support, could be an interesting addition to the mix.  It’s never a bad thing to have a new ally with clout — and with a deadline.

Margaret Monsell is an attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, a statewide non-profit poverty law and policy center.