Helping Convicts Start Fresh

Searchable databases and automated forms are having a huge impact on the lives of the formerly incarcerated in parts of California.

By Anne Miller, Contributor

A job, an apartment, a car loan—with a criminal record, many basics of modern life are out of reach, especially when you have to check a box on an application asking about past convictions.

In California, state law allows records to be sealed after time served for certain convictions (typically non-violent, more minor offenses, and offenses committed by juveniles). Such requests often take months, if not years, to work through the system, and require hours of in-person time on weekdays. That’s months, or years, waiting for a job and an apartment, and spending valuable time, as well as money, in the lawyer’s office.

But 14 out of 58 counties in the Golden State have changed this system of erasing records, thanks to the non-profit Code for America, which, through a project called Clear My Record, aims to solve bureaucratic pain points through code.

“The promise of what happens when you marry technology and policy is that something that seemed so far away … is now very reachable.” —Evonne Silva,
senior director for criminal justice and workforce development, Code for America

“The promise of what happens when you marry technology and policy is that something that seemed so far away, like the ability to serve eight million Californians with criminal records, is now very reachable,” says Evonne Silva,
senior director for criminal justice and workforce development at Code for America.

Code in the DA’s Office

The Clear My Record online project is an example of how code can be used to tackle government requirements and create solutions to shrinking budgets and limited public agency staff.

Clear My Record has connected more than 8,000 people with attorneys in those 14 counties. The San Francisco prosecutor’s office was so impressed, they partnered with Code for America in May 2017 to work on automatically sealing the records of those eligible under shifts in laws related to marijuana charges.

“We built the technology at the very beginning of [2018], in about a month,” says Jazmyn Latimer, a senior designer for Code for America. “We wrote a script that basically digitizes the penal code.” The technology then flags a person’s case if it meets the criteria, such as if they have certain charges listed on their record.

The district attorney’s office gave Code for America a year to complete this task, and announced in February, 2019—before deadline and under budget—that more than 9,000 names had been submitted to the court to get records sealed. Before this endeavor kicked off, only 23 people had navigated the process to have their records sealed under the new marijuana laws, as the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

A bill before the state legislature would take that even further, reports The New York Times, automatically sealing the records of anyone who served time for certain lower-level felonies or misdemeanors (not just for marijuana convictions).

Proof of Concept

One in four Americans has a criminal record, says Code for America, and having that history of incarceration means a quarter of all Americans face major obstacles toward supporting themselves.

“Having your record expunged means freedom,” says Breea Willingham, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York College at Plattsburgh who studies the impact of incarceration on families. “It’s freedom in the context of being able to get that apartment, being able to get that job, being able to live in the quote-unquote free world without the shackles of incarceration holding you back.”

Even if they’ve served their full sentence, and don’t face parole, “the stigma of that sentence still haunts them,” she continues. On apartment applications they have to admit their history, and someone else gets the keys.

“There’s an entire trickle-down effect,” she says.

Code for America’s Clear My Record program allows users to hop on a simple website and search their name for eligibility in the 14 counties whose records were uploaded to the site. If they are eligible to have their record cleared, they can file to do so via simple online forms. The local public defender’s office logs in from the other end of the site, and can download the application and make the formal request for a judge to clear the record.

Previously, this process took six months to two years, as applicants had to call or appear in person to check their eligibility, file paperwork during specific office hours, and then wait for a public defender to file the paperwork with a judge and get that judge to sign off. Now, it’s less than three months, notes Latimer.

When she came to Code for America, Latimer says her focus was always on finding a criminal justice project they could assist, so Latimer and a colleague spent hours sitting through those legal clinics, shadowing public defenders, and interviewing the clients to learn about systemic pain points and to find where a small coding team could make a difference. Creating searchable databases of eligible names and automating forms doesn’t take major engineering, but could have a huge impact on the lives of the formerly incarcerated.

“We have these policies that are seen as huge wins, and then people don’t get the benefits because we put all these hoops in front of them,” Latimer says. “Oh, you have to apply, and then you have to travel to all these places and spend all this time and money.”

Clear My Record isn’t statewide because not every county functions the same, Latimer explains. In some counties, public defenders don’t handle record clearances. But the project has served as a proof of concept on how carefully applied UX (User Experience Design) and code can solve major government pain points for thousands of people.