Low-level convictions lead to life-long struggles

Three years ago, Jill was struggling with addiction, and was caught stealing a sandwich from a drugstore. Because of her past petty theft charges, it was prosecuted as a felony.

Did you know that charges like Jill’s, or something like possessing a small amount of drugs is enough to disqualify someone from a large number of jobs? Past convictions can also present barriers to housing or student aid.

In California, the law allows people with past low-level convictions, who have served their time and are working to turn their lives around, to have those convictions cleared from their record or reduced to a lesser charge.

Despite all the potential benefit for people like Jill, changing your record is not as straightforward as it seems. Code for America is working in select counties to make it easier to clear your record.

Leaving the past behind

Jill took advantage of the record clearance program, completing a rehab program that led to her charge being reduced. She now works as a paralegal at the Alameda County Public Defender’s office helping others, like her, who want to improve their lives and re-open doors that are closed to them due to their records.

Being barred from employment, housing, and educational opportunities because of a criminal record impacts how a person reintegrates into society. With the odds stacked against them, It’s likely that they will be re-arrested and charged with another crime.

Clearing old nonviolent offenses, like possessing a small amount of drugs, could open opportunities for millions of Californians who are looking to move on from past mistakes.

Research

To understand how they could make it easier for people like Jill to clear her record, the Safety and Justice team at Code for America first spoke to legal aid groups that help people with the process. They learned that while technology could play a role, in-person assistance was vital for many eligible people.

“The reclassification application itself is not necessarily complicated, but record clearance as a holistic process is much more complex,” said Endria Richardson, of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. “Reviewing a person's record (if they have access to it), navigating the legal system, and helping clients tackle social, educational, and structural barriers to reentry takes time and expertise that is often simply not available to many clients. We need solutions to address each of these problems.”

As Endria and others at Bay Area legal aid groups generously explained the process, the team started to understand the many complexities. For example, the process to reclassify a felony must be done in the county of conviction. So, a person with a past charge in San Diego who now lives in Sacramento needs to file paperwork in San Diego. In some counties, you need to do parts of the process in person, which could mean a expensive journey for some. In addition, public defenders and legal aid groups can only access clients’ local records, not records from other counties.

So many barriers

There are some serious crimes that disqualify people from these record changes, so seeing the full state record of arrests and prosecutions (or RAP sheet) tells lawyers whether a client is eligible to reduce charges. Getting a copy of one’s state RAP sheet requires getting fingerprinted at certain approved locations and costs about 50 dollars. That can be a barrier for people with inflexible work schedules or limited incomes.

That’s right, there are other ways to change one’s criminal record – that of course have their own processes and requirements.Most people encourage expert assistance to navigate the process. And that expert assistance is very busy – public defenders and legal aid groups are consistently overwhelmed by the number of clients asking them for help.

<p>The team tracked their progress in speaking to people who touch the process in different ways.</p>

The team tracked their progress in speaking to people who touch the process in different ways.

Clearing records transforms lives

To figure out how they could help given the complexity, the team traveled to “reclassification fairs” – free events where people learn about ways to change their records from public defenders and legal aid groups. Other organizations that provide assistance such as drug treatment, transitional housing, or food assistance also attend.

One woman, Mary (name has been changed), at a reclassification fair in Sacramento said that having a felony on her record was making it harder for her to put her life back together after getting sober.

Once the public defender’s office helped Mary have the nonviolent felony on her record reduced to a misdemeanor, she said, “I feel like a new creature.”

Like Mary, many petitioners struggle with addiction, which often led to charges of simple drug possession and petty theft. Others have shared their similar stories at MyProp47.org, a tool to help people learn about Prop 47 by nonprofit Californians for Safety and Justice.

So how can Code for America help empower Mary to change her life?

<p>People crowd around the public defender’s table to ask about changing their records at a reclassification fair in Santa Cruz.</p>

People crowd around the public defender’s table to ask about changing their records at a reclassification fair in Santa Cruz.

Helping the helpers

Given that changing one’s record is a complicated process that could require help from legal aid and public defenders, the team is exploring how to “help the helpers.”  By making life easier for public defenders and legal aid groups, it could enable them to better help more clients like Mary.

One way that technology could help public defenders: create a way for clients to complete their pre-screeners online before they take time off of work to see an attorney.

“It’s frustrating that we have to put on big events to get people screened for Prop 47,” says Vanessa Lim, an Equal Justice Works/AmeriCorps Employment Opportunity Corps Legal Fellow at Watsonville Law Center. “I wish there were digital tools for people to do this at their homes.”

<p>The team discusses how to integrate feedback on ideas from interviews with legal aid groups and District Attorneys.</p>

The team discusses how to integrate feedback on ideas from interviews with legal aid groups and District Attorneys.

Launching Clear My Record

The team built a clean slate application tool for people to fill out basic information on their computer or phone. After collaborating on a few iterations and working out security needs, the San Francisco Public Defender’s Clean Slate Program has started using the tool. In the first month, just over 75 people have used it to get started. 

As the team continues to learn from working with the San Francisco Public Defender’s office, they’ll keep improving the site. They will also look to work with more counties in California, and watch for other ways to make it easier to clear old records.

How you can help

  • If you’re involved in the record clearing process, or trying to clear your record in San Francisco, Alameda, or Santa Cruz county, contact Jazmyn Latimer
  • Document the record change process in your city or state at the National Day of Civic Hacking May 5-6
<p>What kind of geeks ask for a selfie with Prop 47 expert Karen Flynn from the Sacramento Public Defender’s office? Code for America geeks.</p>

What kind of geeks ask for a selfie with Prop 47 expert Karen Flynn from the Sacramento Public Defender’s office? Code for America geeks.