More than 70 million Americans have a criminal record in the United States. This means that almost every time nearly one in three Americans applies for a job or to college, signs up for public assistance programs, or tries to find housing, their history of arrests — even those that didn’t lead to a conviction or for which they were found innocent — haunts them, creating a barrier to the essential elements of a stable life and economic mobility. Because almost half of all children in the U.S. have a parent with a criminal record, the socioeconomic barriers carry across generations and create lasting ripple effects that impact upward mobility.
Code for America has set out to change that. The non-profit’s Clear My Record initiative has been working to automate the record expungement process at the county level, chiefly regarding marijuana convictions in California, since 2016. As of last fall, Code for America reports that half of California counties have used the tool, resulting in 140,000 convictions reduced or dismissed.
The project started with a simple question, says Alia Toran-Burrell, the associate director of Clear My Record: Why is the burden put on people with convictions to clear their records when it’s possible to do it automatically?
In September of 2018, California passed AB1793, which mandated that counties clear convictions for buying or possessing marijuana, since voters legalized marijuana in the state in 2016. But only 3% of people eligible for record clearances under the law actually recieve them, says Toran-Burrell.
“It’s really challenging to clear your record on your own,” Toran-Burrell says. “It takes time and an understanding of complex law and it often costs money.”
So Code For America set out to automate the process with a computer program that flags eligible convictions for counties who would otherwise be tasked with digging through large datasets on their own.
The Clear My Record team developed a computer program that combs through a county’s digital records. In a matter of moments, a list of records eligible for expungement based on both laws and parameters set by individual DAs is returned, which counties can much more easily work from to begin the process of expunging the records so that they don’t come up in public records searches.
“Code for America saw this opportunity that, if you’re going to do this automatically, we can develop technology that allows that to happen in a streamlined way,” Toran-Burrell says. Without the app, counties would be left to their own devices, which could mean manual processes that could take months or years to carry out. “It helps streamline the process for governments and ideally get relief quicker,” she adds.
In addition to the government-facing application, Clear My Record has also created a user-facing app that lets residents in 14 California counties initiate the process themselves. The platform is also used as the main way that the public defenders’ office in California’s Contra Costa County initiates contact with residents who qualify for expungement.
“For a really long time [before the app], the Clean Slate Unit was just one attorney who would seek some post-conviction relief for a client who sought it,” says Brandon Banks, a supervising attorney for the unit. “Now we have this really robust unit that’s really proactive in seeking clean slate relief.”
For a long time, Banks says, expunging records was an afterthought for the office, but in the past few years the importance of the relief it provides for those who have come through the criminal justice system has become clear.
“Classically, a public defender represents someone when they’re charged with a crime. The office represents that person and at the conclusion of the case — whether it’s by trial, acquittal, conviction, or a resolution short of trial — we close that case out and move onto the next client,” he says. “But over time we’ve become far more aware of the lasting impact that a conviction has.”
Now, thanks to Code for America’s help, Contra Costa County has an efficient and proactive way to identify clients who are eligible for help, which can take many forms in the county.
First, there’s a version of expungement that eliminates convictions or arrest records from being seen by private entities like landlords or employers. There’s also the ability to get a felony dropped to a misdemeanor. Then, there’s relief for fines and fees that can come alongside arrests and convictions which traditionally have to be paid before a conviction can qualify for expungement.
Since starting this work in 2016, Banks estimates that the program has provided assistance to tens of thousands of people with roughly 40 referrals coming through on a weekly basis.
Of course, making sure that people know about the program is essential. Contra Costa County works with community-based organizations to direct people to the website.
For Banks, this work couldn’t be more important. “Once someone comes through the criminal justice system, they’ve already suffered a pretty significant punishment,” he says. “It’s in everyone’s interest to remove these barriers because what we’ve seen and what the data shows is when someone seeks and receives this relief, it leads to someone’s ability to get a job, to generate wealth for that individual and their family and community, and that it significantly reduces recidivism rates, so it actually decreases crime.”
In the meantime, Code for America has been busy working to expand its offerings across the country. The group began a partnership with Illinois’ Cook County (which is currently stalled thanks to the pandemic) and has become a steering committee member of the national Clean Slate Initiative.
A main challenge in growing the movement to clear records, Toran-Burrell says, is people realizing that it’s possible in the first place. “States have the infrastructure to do this already, we build on existing processes and technology. We don’t have to reinvent the system to be able to do this,” she says.
She also sees the work as central to COVID recovery. “We really want people to understand that COVID relief is about helping people recover from [COVID’s economic fallout] and that people with records are less likely to get jobs, so people with records are held back even more now,” she says.
This article is part of The Clean Slate, a series about how cities can use technology and policy to eliminate unjust fines, fees, and other barriers to economic mobility. The Clean Slate is generously supported by the Solutions Journalism Network.
Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, U.S. News & World Report, Rewire.news, and more. She holds an MA in Social Design, with a specialization in intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Fine Art from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.