We’ve had to look hard to find good news these days, especially in California. But as of this summer, Californians have at least one new reason to be optimistic: with the help of our Clear My Record technology, DAs across the state have identified approximately 144,000 marijuana convictions to be reduced or dismissed from people’s records, representing two-thirds of all eligible marijuana convictions in California. In total, up to 220,000 convictions are eligible for clearance—removing unjust barriers that have put countless opportunities out of reach.
This isn’t just about the number of convictions changed. These convictions impacted people’s lives, and our work is intended to address the harm they have caused. With the help of our technology, we estimate:
- 113,000 people will have marijuana convictions reduced, dismissed, or sealed on their records.
- 42,000 people will have no felony convictions on their CA records, which is important because felonies often have the worst impact during background checks and automatically disqualify people from certain licenses, jobs, and benefits.
- 8,000 people will have no CA convictions in the last seven years, which is an important time frame used by background-check companies.
- 18,000 people will no longer have any convictions at all on their CA records.
A new era for record clearance policies
July 1 marked the deadline for California’s district attorneys to comply with a momentous new law requiring up to 220,000 marijuana convictions to be automatically reduced, dismissed, or sealed on people’s criminal records. This is the first policy of its kind and scale in the history of the state.
While Proposition 64, the 2016 initiative that legalized marijuana, included a path to conviction relief, the burden was on individual people to navigate a complex, expensive legal process to receive it. This meant that only 3% of eligible people managed to get relief using the “petition-based” record clearance process.
In 2018, the new law (AB 1793) was passed to take the burden off individuals and deliver record relief to them automatically. Before this, marijuana convictions had become eligible to be reduced, dismissed, or sealed—but relief was not guaranteed.
This change comes at a critical moment for our country, with widespread calls to reimagine the criminal legal system and reckon with the harms it has already caused. The criminalization of marijuana caused hundreds of thousands of people—disproportionately Black and other BIPOC—to be convicted for low-level, nonviolent crimes, which sometimes even led to jail and prison sentences.
But even after marijuana became legal, the human toll of the War on Drugs persisted in the form of conviction records tied to people’s names indefinitely.
That approach and systemic racism created a country in which one in three people has some type of criminal record —between 70 and 100 million people nationwide. These records burden people long after their official sentences end, and prevent them from moving forward in their lives. They make it much harder to get decent jobs, stable housing, better education, and more. In short, a record can—and often does—become a life sentence to poverty.
At Code for America, we want to clear all eligible records. We see a future in which eligible records get cleared automatically as a routine function of government. To get there, we need solutions that can scale. We need to think big, and our work in California has shown that it’s possible.
Clear My Record’s journey in California
Our Clear My Record initiative began in 2016 with an online intake tool that connects people to legal aid for support navigating California’s existing expungement process, which has helped about 18,000 people to date. Through that work, we saw firsthand the inefficiencies and inequities built into the petition-based process, and came to understand that the existing record clearance process simply could not meet people’s real needs or deliver at scale.
We saw an opportunity to try something new when we partnered with five district attorneys’ offices throughout the state in a first-of-its-kind automatic record clearance pilot: first in San Francisco, then in Contra Costa, San Joaquin, Sacramento, and Los Angeles. In total, these partnerships helped to reduce or dismiss approximately 85,000 convictions from 70,000 people’s records. We proved that record clearance could be more efficient by using technology to automate a process that would otherwise be manual.
AB 1793 required every DA in California to adopt an automatic approach to marijuana record clearance, so we scaled up the technology by releasing a no-cost, open-source application that efficiently identifies eligible convictions from bulk record data—up to 10,000 eligible convictions per minute, in fact.
Approximately half of California’s counties have used the application, helping them identify an additional 55,000 marjuana convictions to be reduced or dismissed. Taken together with the five-county pilot, this means we helped to reduce or dismiss approximately two-thirds of the total number of eligible convictions across the state.
Where we’re going next
We are proud that our work has had such an impact so far, but we know there is much more work to be done.
Courts still need to update these records in their systems because their data is a main source for background-check companies. AB 1793 only gave district attorneys a deadline to identify eligible convictions, but courts face no such mandate. Policymakers and advocates need to ensure that courts update their records swiftly so that relief can become official.
We also need to go further than marijuana convictions. In the coming years, more types of records will become eligible for automatic clearance thanks to AB 1076, a 2019 law inspired by the success of AB 1793. More people will get record relief, meaning fewer people will face barriers to opportunity.
But to truly make a difference, we need to repair the past. AB 1076 will not affect convictions that took place before 2021, and those are the ones creating barriers for hundreds of thousands of people right now. Advocates and legislators need to make sure that we provide retroactive relief and expand eligibility so that we don’t leave people behind.
And it’s not enough to clear records and expand eligibility. People need to know when their records have been cleared and what it means for them. Since records block people from getting good jobs, secure housing, higher education, and more, we need to make sure they know what kinds of opportunities suddenly become available when their records are finally clear. We call this “delivering impact,” and we are hard at work developing new products and strategies to make it happen.
The need for this work is immense and immediate. The country is calling for change, and the COVID-19 crisis adds even more urgency. People with records were already facing crisis-level unemployment before the pandemic, and without automatic record relief, it is hard to imagine any path toward an equitable recovery. But there is reason for hope. With the right technology and human-centered design, we can help the government deliver impact at the scale we need. Ultimately, this work is not just about creating efficient ways to change conviction record data. It is about changing lives.