There are 70 million Americans with a criminal record—more people than the entire population of Australia—who face more than 44,000 legal barriers that affect every area of life. Of that number, more than 8 million live in California. At this year’s Summit, Cristine Soto DeBerry of the San Francisco District Attorney’s office posed the question: do district attorneys and prosecutors have an obligation to look backwards as they’re talking about criminal justice reform and the effects of mass incarceration? For her boss, DA George Gascón, the answer was unequivocally yes. So when Proposition 64 passed in California, legalizing marijuana, they saw an opportunity to account for injustices of the past.

“If we want to move forward in a more humane, less carceral society, we have to look backwards as well.”

Until last year, the process to clear criminal convictions off your record in California was especially onerous. So onerous that out of the millions of people eligible for record clearance across the nation, only 3% actually take the effort to do so. DA Gascón’s office decided to take the burden off of the individual and proactively petition to clear every conviction eligible in San Francisco under Prop 64—which is when Code for America reached out to see how we could help. We already had technology called Clear My Record that helped connect people seeking record clearance to a lawyer, but saw an opportunity to build something that could provide relief at a much greater scale.

Fast forward to today: Our partnership with the SFDA has cleared more than 9,000 records, including more than 1,000 felony records. Of that number, only 23 people had applied to clear their record themselves. Now thousands will have access to opportunities for housing, jobs, education, and more that were previously unavailable to them. Through pilots with four other California counties, we are on track through the pilot to help dismiss and reduce nearly 100,000 convictions in the state by the end of this year. And this partnership has sparked a movement: cities all over the country are reaching out to to understand what we did, and figure out if and how they can replicate it.

“For us, it was really important that we were focused on solving real problems… Our goal is not to build a particular technology or to use a particular technology, it's to clear all eligible criminal records.”

To create this proof point for clearing records at scale, the Clear My Record Team had to rethink their approach to building technology. We’re now on version six of Clear My Record, with some of those versions being entirely different products due to dramatic changes in expectations, requirements, and the legal landscape. With each change, we’ve adapted and iterated from what we’ve learned and surfaced opportunities that deliver real value—not focusing on a particular technical solution, but on clearing as many people's records as possible automatically and as quickly as possible.

To hear more about this partnership, the evolution of Clear My Record, and where we’re going next, watch the video or read the transcript below.

Transcript

Evonne Silva:

Cristine. So, you played a key role in the DA's decision to clear all marijuana convictions in San Francisco. How did this come to be? Why did the office decide to do this?

Cristine Soto DeBerry:

Yeah, you heard in the video there are over 70 million Americans with criminal records. That's greater than the population of Australia. There are over 8 million Californians with criminal records and the video let you know over 500,000 are added every year and as district attorneys and prosecutors, the question for us is do we have an obligation or responsibility to look backwards as we're talking about criminal justice reform and reducing mass incarceration and the effects of the war on drugs? And the answer for DA Gascón was unequivocally yes. If we want to move forward in a more humane, less carceral society, we have to look backwards as well. So, when Prop 64 passed and marijuana was now legal, the question was what did that mean for all the people and communities that we had criminalized for that same activity for decades?

Cristine Soto DeBerry:

And to us, without some type of radical accounting for that injustice, legalization itself was not just. And so, we went about trying to understand as an office what we could do to impact that. What tools are at our disposal as prosecutors to bring equity to the conversation around legalization? And that meant looking at old cases. You heard in the video, the traditional process is exceptionally onerous. You have to one, know you have a conviction that might even be eligible. You have to know where that conviction took place and where that courthouse is. You need to likely hire an attorney, file a petition, tell my office that you would like your petition heard, schedule a hearing with the court and have a hearing and you would be unsurprised to know most people do not pursue that path. In fact, only 3% of people nationally take that effort. The question for us though was we're not opposed to people getting that relief. We had made a decision that we thought those convictions should be expunged and so, we decided to do the work for them. We said, "No need to ask, no need to apply. We've got it. We're going to proactively file that petition for you." Thanks.

Evonne Silva:

And we were so inspired by the announcement because we had seen firsthand, as you heard in the video, how the petition based process isn't designed to provide relief to everyone who is eligible today. It's not designed for the digital age and so, we developed an opt-in version and in early 2016 and we were trying to solve that key issue. How can we connect an individual with lawyers across counties who would then file petitions on their behalf? And the service is live in 14 counties and has served over 12,000 people, but every county doesn't have a public defender or legal aid attorney and when they do, they're not providing these post-conviction services and even when they are, what we find is that they're at capacity and under resourced. So, folks are waiting for months to find a lawyer to help them through this process and for us, we're working to clear all eligible criminal records and so, we needed to find another way to serve everyone who is eligible and so, we had to ask a different question and so, we started to build some early technology that would read a state criminal record, evaluate eligibility and then generate the form that could be filed with the court.

Evonne Silva:

When we heard your announcement and we reached out to see how we could help because perhaps there was a connection and there was and we wanted to help because the policy that you set out to implement to proactively review and file petitions on behalf of individuals so that they can get that relief automatically is a really important one and for us, justice is getting the implementation right as this crowd has heard us say before from this stage, especially on these types of reforms and as we heard in the video, it's because there's so much at stake for people's lives, for our communities, for our country and so, how did it all turn out Cristine? What was the result of our work?

Cristine Soto DeBerry:

Oh. I'll just tell you. Never underestimate the value of a good question and the ideas it generates. We've made just remarkable change for San Franciscans. We'd still be at that work frankly with stone tablets and chisels hammering away if Code For America hadn't shown up. So, I can now sit here and say we're done with the work because of the technology and really we had what I would say is a great idea, but Code For America made it an elegant one and through our work we were able to clear all of the marijuana convictions in San Francisco. That was over 9,361 convictions.

Evonne Silva:

That's great.

Cristine Soto DeBerry:

It's great. What's more remarkable about that though is only 23 of those people had actually applied to have their convictions erased. So, had we not engaged in this partnership, in this endeavor, that's, I'm not going to do the math, over 9,000 people. 9,338-ish people that would still be walking around with a marijuana conviction on their record unnecessarily completely entitled to that relief. So, that's pretty exciting and of those people, about 33% were African Americans, 25% were Latinos. So, we really did some work to start cutting away at the racial disparity that exists in our enforcement around drug activity and maybe even most exciting, probably what you heard from Earlonne too, of the convictions we took care of, 1,336 people now have no felonies on their record. The marijuana case was the only felony on their record and another 729 have no record at all. Meaning the pot case was the only thing on their records.

Cristine Soto DeBerry:

So, that's about 2,000 people that we have dramatically reduced the barriers for them to find employment, to get financial aid, housing, take care of their children, all things that benefit all of us really. It makes for a much better society. So, those things have just been really phenomenal and exciting to see and then as we were kind of mentioning, it's catching on. I mean, I have to say Evonne, I think we sparked a movement. There's cities all over the country reaching out to us, Chicago, Baltimore, New Jersey, Seattle, trying to understand what we did and see if they can replicate it and leaning heavily on the policy we developed and the technology that Code For America developed to find that perfect fusion of doing this automatically and at scale. So, tell me Evonne, what you ultimately built looks a lot different from when we started working together. Why is that?

Evonne Silva:

It is. As Jen had said yesterday, we're actually now on version six of Clear My Record from the original version and the last couple of versions aren't minor changes. They're actually completely different products, a completely different product because the expectations, the requirements, the landscape has changed dramatically. So, when we started, the idea was to help your office with this ambitious idea and build technology so that your team didn't have to rely on paper, people and over overtime to get the job done because you had said, it's important policy, you were going to do whatever it took and so, at that time the only way we could get data was having your staff pull criminal records one by one and that takes a bit of time, as we see it's a bottleneck in the process and so, what we were building was technology that would be centered on reading thousands of PDFs and building the technology that could then scan and review every page of those records to find those eligible convictions and then generate the paperwork that you would then file with the courts. But then midway through the pilot, the law changed and the law changed in a way that every county was now going to do what you are going to do, but they would all be receiving raw criminal history data and so, there was no need to pull records one by one, which was incredible because it solved a key bottleneck.

Evonne Silva:

When we think about scale, when we think about how this is going to map over to the entire state, it also meant we had to rethink our approach to how we are building technology. And so, our goal has been clear from the beginning and our goal is not to build a particular technology or to use a particular technology, it's to clear all eligible criminal records and to do so automatically and expeditiously so folks experienced this relief and so, we built an entirely new product and it is aimed at helping your office make sense and make meaning of this massive new dataset, but what it also meant is now every county in the state is going to be able to use this technology in our work together to do the work that your office has already done and it actually sets up the courts to complete the process so that they can process the files digitally.

Evonne Silva:

And so for us, it was really important that we were focused on solving real problems because if we knew the solution at the beginning, we would have been fixated on trying to prove that our solution had value and missed some key opportunities to actually deliver value, which is really important clearly and so, with each change, we adapted and applied what we had learned from the previous iteration, from what the landscape was telling us, how the law was changing and worked towards that so that we were always focused on clearing as many people's records as possible automatically and as quickly as possible. And so, speaking of change, I'm curious, how has this effort changed the way that your office thinks about its work, that you think about your work and what's next for San Francisco?

Cristine Soto DeBerry:

It's really been a revelation for us. I know it seems obvious maybe at this point that we would do that automatically for people, but I can tell you at the moment we decided to proactively remove people's convictions, we were the first office in the country to do that and to think about what it meant to look backwards at the effects of mass incarceration from the role of a prosecutor and so, now it has become part of what we think about as an office. After we finished the marijuana work, we asked ourselves what else is holding people back that we have an opportunity to impact as prosecutors that would make our community safer and give individuals a better opportunity to thrive? And that brought some really great thinking forward for us. We have a bill right now in front of the state legislature here in California, AB 1076 and what that does is really blows out the work we've been doing around marijuana and adds a whole range of other convictions that are similarly holding people back from opportunity, making it harder for them to get employment, housing and all the things we would hope people would have when they return home.

Cristine Soto DeBerry:

That's working its way through the legislature. We would welcome your support. It will help over 2 million Californians that have a conviction on their record and millions more that have arrests that didn't result in a prosecution. So, it's really critically important legislation. So, if you're on social media, hashtag AB 1076, call your legislator and then we're really trying to think more about centering and elevating the voices of formerly incarcerated people in our own work. We spend... Thank you. Yeah, you should all be doing that. We spend a lot of time at San Quentin taking our prosecutors there to work with the men that are inside and on the other side of that we have a formerly incarcerated advisory board that comes to our office and advises us on the policies that we're contemplating in the office and has really brought refinement and clarity to a lot of our work. We're actually looking to hire some of those people.

Cristine Soto DeBerry:

So, if there's any funders in the room, please find me afterwards. I'm eager for some support there and to any of you that are employers in the room, I really want to encourage you to think about your opportunities to make an impact here, not just with the tools that you build and create, which are very important, but also with the employment opportunities you have. Can you hire somebody that's exiting the criminal justice system and give them a second chance? I think all of us doing that is what's going to make the difference.

Evonne Silva:

That's great.

Cristine Soto DeBerry:

What's next for the Clear My Record team Evonne?

Evonne Silva:

Yeah, we're really excited. As you heard the excitement I had in my voice in the video. The vision for Clear My Record is to clear all eligible criminal records and the way we plan to do that is to expand, streamline and automate the record clearance process and to do that in California as we have been in partnerships, great partnerships like we have with your office, but also in states across the country and this for us is how we start to transform the way government is delivering services to those most impacted by the criminal justice system.

Evonne Silva:

So, in California the pilot is setting the standard for implementation of this new law and so, we're crafting a blueprint, utilizing the lessons learned from the pilots. We are developing a tool so that all California counties can do what we've done in the pilot counties, which is really exciting and we'll be releasing the blueprint and the tool this summer and what that means is we are on track through the pilot to help dismiss and reduce nearly 100,000 convictions in California by the end of this year and with the use of the blueprint and the tool, the rest, the remaining convictions, 100,000 convictions by next July, which is really exciting and our work together has also sparked, as you talked about, this movement and national interest and conversation around that record relief should be provided automatically and so, we want to help design, pilot and implement reforms in at least 10 states over the next three years because this work is really important.

Evonne Silva:

The impact that it has on folks lives, it's really much needed and we need all of you to make this happen. As Cristine mentioned, there's a number of ways to get involved. If you live in California, please do support AB 1076. It's in the Senate. Call your senator. Let them know that you support it. Also, urge your local district attorney to do what the district attorneys in our pilot have done, what Cristine's office have done by adopting our blueprint and our tool and make sure that they're dismissing. I'm not going to say dismissing and sealing all marijuana convictions in your county. They have the tool to do it.

Evonne Silva:

Now the question is just whether they will and so, your voice will be heard. So, submit op-eds in your local paper. Tweet about this work and your expectation that they're implementing this policy and wherever you live, states across the country are implementing and considering automatic record clearance reforms. Cristine mentioned a few. So, make sure if your state is doing that to lift your voice and make your voice heard in support of those reforms. They're really important. So, thank you. Thank you all and thank you Cristine.

Cristine Soto DeBerry:

Yeah, thank you Evonne.

 

Tags:   Criminal Justice Clear My Record California