Our current petition-based record clearance process was not built for the digital age. In 2016, Code for America sought to address that by launching Clear My Record as an opt-in digital tool to make it easy for people with a conviction record to connect with attorneys and petition to have their record cleared. But after several years of offering this tool, only about 10,000 people had used it, and we don’t know how many actually got through the burdensome, complex process. Hundreds of thousands or even millions of people are eligible for relief, and need it to get living wage jobs, secure stable housing, participate in their children’s education, or invest in their own. At the same time, new legal remedies were making more people eligible. In other words, record clearance had become a “bucket removing water from an ever-rising ocean.”
That’s why the Clear My Record team has turned our focus to automatic record clearance. Under this model, instead of having to petition the government when convictions are eligible, the government clears those convictions for you. Automatic record clearance can provide equitable change for millions of individuals and their families to improve the conditions of their lives, and anyone who may be eligible for conviction relief should be aware of it. By focusing on automatic record clearance, we have introduced a new question: How does government tell people that their convictions have been cleared?
For the past several months, our team has begun to apply human-centered research and design principles to automatic record clearance notifications. By understanding how to notify individuals that their convictions have been automatically cleared or reduced, we can encourage action and achieve the impact in people’s lives that automatic record clearance can offer. As states across the country look to pass automatic record clearance policies, our research will help shape how government provides notification services to people in a human-centered, digital, and trauma-informed manner.
Automatic conviction relief requires human-centered notifications
The goal of Clear My Record is to clear all eligible criminal convictions through automatic record clearance. Simply put, the current petition-based process doesn’t work—it is costly, cumbersome, and confusing, and was not designed to provide relief to the millions who are eligible. In fact, current research estimates that only 6-8% of those eligible access the petition based record clearance process.
Using technology, we can support government to clear convictions automatically. This would mean everyone who had an eligible conviction would have it cleared, without having to take any action at all. Where conviction relief happens automatically, we can ensure that 100% of those eligible would receive relief.
Ensuring that a person is notified that their conviction has been granted relief is especially important when relief happens automatically. In the petition-based process, people are required to include their most recent contact information when they submit paperwork to the court—which means they can be directly contacted about the status of their case. However, when convictions are cleared automatically, the relief is provided without people needing to submit any information. This means that the court may not have the most current contact information for people to let them know that their record has been changed.
In the landscape of automatic record clearance, it is critical to let people know that their convictions may be eligible for relief, and when those convictions have been cleared. These notifications give people a line of sight into future conviction relief and put them in a better position to take action. A cleared record could mean access to more job opportunities, student loans, or housing—but this relief doesn’t mean much if the person isn’t aware that their conviction has been cleared.
The importance of being trauma-informed in notifications
Justice-impacted populations often experience trauma. This can stem from individual events, such as being stopped by the police or having to appear in court, often multiple times throughout their lifetime. These individual experiences can be emotionally and/or physically impactful on a person’s life. When these experiences compound, they lead to trauma on a systemic level. Certain events become pervasive, not only affecting one person, but also decreasing the ability for the entire system to function. Both types of trauma are especially prevalent in the context of the criminal legal system.
When thinking through notifications, it is important to consider those past experiences of trauma both on the individual and at the systemic level, and do what we can to avoid re-traumatizing people. Instead, government should work toward service delivery that promotes healing and recovery. Being trauma-informed—understanding and acknowledging trauma to create services that provide an environment of care—is a central part of any work in the criminal legal system. And it is especially important when it comes to notifications.
A trauma-informed notification will accomplish the following:
- Realize the impact that trauma has had on individuals and their interactions with the criminal-legal system,
- Recognize those signs of trauma when they surface, so that we can,
- Respond to trauma with an appropriate action, in a way that
- Resists retraumatization.
These four actions, if done together, can meet people where they are and then leave them better off. Since we know that there is pervasive trauma within the criminal legal system, it is important that any work on notifications to recognizes this and supports people in a way that does not retraumatize them.
What might a trauma-informed notification look like?
At Code for America, being trauma-informed starts with our research practices. When starting in-depth interviews for our research on notifications, we integrated techniques that build agency and allow for space through frequent breaks and check-ins. We started interviews with a clear explanation of expectations and built rapport with participants through open-ended questions. We also allowed for them to begin to craft notification messaging themselves, so that they could be at the center of this co-creation process. By starting our work with these in-depth interviews, we are able to ground the work we do in the real needs of people who we will serve.
Through the insights gained from these interviews, we found ways to implement the framework of the four R’s that would ensure that our notification would be trauma-informed.
Realizing that trauma has had an impact on the people and system we are working in is the first step to delivering trauma-informed notifications. This also includes recognizing behaviors within the context of trauma. For example, seeing the lack of eligible people going through the petition-based process not as a result of a lack of motivation, but rather because of a fear of interacting with a system that has mistreated them. Through conversations with people living with convictions on their record, we found that their trauma has extended into their job searches. We heard from many people living with convictions that they feel a need to “explain away” their record to employers—but, even after they do so, the stigma remains. Take, for example, the following quote we heard during one of our interviews:
"It would be nice to know, because when this one employer asked me, ‘Hey, if I do a background check on you for [this job], is there anything that you should tell me about?’ and I said ‘Yeah, I got a DUI.’ I had no idea what was on my record. I had no idea what would show up and what wouldn’t. I didn’t want to tell him my whole life history of… my 20s, I made really horrible decisions. This was all my 20s, and I don’t want to tell an employer all this crap."
Under the lens of being trauma-informed, we can tell that this particular participant has experienced trauma in interacting with the criminal justice system and that has impacted her ability to seek employment. A job application was no longer a simple process of filling a form, but now also an invitation to relive her past history. This realization reminds us that we need to deeply consider not only how we communicate that there has been a change to someone’s record, but also what else they would want or need to know that could change the way they approach employment opportunities. Understanding the role that trauma has played in someone’s job search means we can craft our notifications to support people whose convictions have been cleared in ways that will help them find jobs that they will thrive in.
We have realized through our research that individual traumatic events have had a lasting effect on people’s lives. Often, people living with convictions face rejection at the latter stages of jobs, have a hard time finding housing, and have increased interactions with the criminal legal system. These interactions can lead to increased and compounded trauma, and it is important to consider ways that those of us who work with justice-impacted populations can work to counter this trauma. For example, we heard the following from a participant about her experience with her petition-based clean slate attorney:
"I want to point out the attorney was also helpful because she explained my rights as well. Like apparently—and I didn’t know this, because I’ve been so down on myself—when you’re in and out of jail for years, the way cops treat you, the way the judge treats you, you think you’re this low class person in society. She told me, the best thing the attorney did was also, she informed me of my rights, that we have rights, when we apply for jobs, we have rights."
We now know that we can work to craft a notification to counter trauma by providing agency—for instance, by letting people know their rights when applying for a job so they feel better prepared to take action and advocate for themselves.
Once we realize the trauma has had an impact on the people and system we are working in, we can then take steps to recognize those signs of trauma when they appear. We see this clearly in the way that legislation was written regarding notifications. A California law, AB 1793, was passed last year that makes conviction relief automatic for eligible marijuana convictions, and the law includes a provision about notifications. It says:
“The department shall post general information on its Internet Web site about the recall or dismissal of sentences, dismissal and sealing, or redesignation authorized in this section.”
The California Department of Justice and some local district attorneys have published content on their respective web pages that restates the law in more accessible language and provides a phone number to call. When we showed these websites to interview participants, they found the sites inaccessible on many levels. The webpages were difficult to find, the content on the page was confusing, and participants said would not be inclined to call the number of the district attorney to get more information. Most significantly, participants commented that the content reinforced their feeling that the system was not made for them:
“Clearly, logically this [webpage] is not efficient. Anybody can tell you don't have to have a law degree. You don't have to be a developer to understand this. Like anybody... that's common sense. We know this is inefficient. It almost makes me feel like they not only just don't care, they almost make it feel like they don't want you to overturn your conviction. They don't want, so if you don't, they don't want you to."
When viewed under the lens of recognizing trauma, this quote highlights a mistrust in the system that stems from past trauma. There’s a sense that the system doesn’t care enough to help, and instead is actively trying to stop people from hearing that their convictions have been cleared. In the context of notifications, this reminds us that the sender of any message, especially when it is government, can strongly affect the receiver. We must recognize this reaction when designing a notification service to reduce re-traumatization and ensure people are able to access the information they need.
What’s next: Responding to trauma through notifications in a way that Resists Retraumatization
During these conversations with participants, we’ve already begun to see ways that a notification might be able to respond to trauma. For example, we heard that these individual events of trauma have led to system-level trauma, which has manifested in disjointed service delivery:
"It's actually almost impossible to try and find a comprehensive place that will handle the whole problem... If you're trying to move forward with your life, that includes a lot of different areas. It includes healthcare, and stable housing, and moral support, and oftentimes group support. One thing just doesn't happen, it's taken me years to even get in the frame of mind to thinking that something like that would be possible to forget, or to put that in its proper place. Not to live today in the clothes of yesterday."
The recognition of trauma embedded in the system in this way leads us to understand that it is not only important for our notification to inform people about their conviction being cleared, but also to recognize the need for additional services and support. By integrating information about other wraparound services, a notification can achieve much more than just telling someone that their conviction has been cleared. It can point them to organizations and services that may provide help in other areas.
This is just one possible example of a response to trauma, which can be combined with several others. From our work so far in the realize and recognize phases of notifications research and design, we have begun to move on to the next steps of a trauma-informed notification: responding to trauma through notifications in a way that resists retraumatization.
Our in-depth interviews have led us to the following questions, which we will seek to answer in the next phase of our research:
- How do we reach individuals without infringing on their privacy?
- How do we utilize the deep work and connections of community based organizations to expand who might deliver the notification?
- How do we provide information without reintroducing folks with criminal records to traumatic experiences or locations (court orders, police stations, etc.)?
- How might we build agency through giving people access to their own information and providing them with knowledge of their rights?
Stay tuned for part 2 of this blog series, where we’ll walk through how we used a design sprint to get at the respond and resist aspects of a trauma-informed notification, and how this work has begun to influence broader policy recommendations.
Learn more about Clear My Record
Special thanks to the Philadelphia Participatory Design Lab, who is paving the way for trauma-informed service delivery through their work with the Office of Homeless Services, and SAMSHA for introducing and popularizing the framework of the 4 R’s of trauma-informed care.