Making Automatic Record Clearance a People-Centered, End-to-End Service

The state of automatic record clearance in the US shows hope for a future where more people get the help they need to achieve a fresh start
illustration of man and child at table

Living with a criminal record is difficult, and the challenges associated with it affect a huge community of people. One out of every three adults in the US has a criminal record of some type, and even though many records are eligible to be cleared, the vast majority of people never receive relief. This has caused deep and lasting harm, as records lock people out of basic necessities like jobs and housing and dealing with the stigma takes a toll on people’s mental health

The good news? It’s possible to change all of that, and the progress made in the past few years shows a better future is possible.

Petition-based versus automatic record clearance

In order to get a record cleared, people in most states have to go through a petition-based record clearance process. This process puts the burden on impacted people, who have to be aware of which charges are eligible for clearance and file a request for their record to be examined and cleared. This is costly, time-consuming, and difficult to navigate. 

But over the past half-decade a new approach—automatic record clearance, in which states identify and clear eligible records without the person needing to apply for it—has taken hold in states around the country, with many more poised to follow their lead in the near future. In 2018, California and Pennsylvania became the first states to pass automatic record clearance policies; California’s law focused on clearing convictions for cannabis offenses that were no longer illegal and Pennsylvania’s law offered relief for an array of non-convictions and misdemeanors. 

Since then, nine more states have followed Pennsylvania’s lead and passed “Clean Slate” automatic record clearance laws, which provide relief for people with old non-convictions, misdemeanors, and certain felony convictions. Eight other states and the District of Columbia have followed California’s lead and enacted policies which are clearing cannabis-related convictions following adult-use legalization. That means in just the past five years, more than one third of US states have adopted policies that empower government to proactively clear eligible records. 

a map of record clearance laws in the US

Our vision of people-centered, “end-to-end” automatic record clearance 

Imagine a world where a government agency that holds criminal legal system data on individuals examines its records to determine which qualify for clearance, then that agency initiates the clearance process and coordinates with the other record-holding agencies to ensure they also limit public access to qualifying records. Crucially, none of these steps require people with eligible convictions to apply for relief—government handles the process for them. But states can still do more to make this truly “end-to-end,” including informing people that records are getting cleared automatically, what record clearance means for them, and how to get connected to additional legal support resources.

Government can develop ways for people to digitally access secure and confidential information about their records, coupled with extensive community outreach and education efforts in partnership with trusted community-based organizations. While some states offer ways to request your own record, none of these services are particularly people-centered. We envision services that are freely available, trauma-informed, and on demand—designed in a way to help people understand their records, with a simple path to dispute errors, and with information about other resources and services.

The key to achieving this vision is for policymakers to plan for implementation long before a law is passed or a policy is enacted. Even the most well-intentioned laws can struggle to live up to their ideals if there is no clear pathway to implementation. This means policymakers should be crafting automatic record clearance policy with an understanding of how criminal legal system agencies maintain and update criminal case history records, where the data points live that are needed to determine which records are eligible, and how various agency systems can “talk” to each other. Luckily this is not rocket science, and Code for America has been able to assist with policy creation in more than 20 states at this point. 

How we know this future is possible

If this all sounds ambitious, that’s because it is. But we know that it’s possible for automatic record clearance to work at scale because we’ve helped make it happen. In our implementation support with states such as Utah, we’re showing how to overcome common challenges. Utah’s digital court records offered plenty of data to establish which individuals were eligible, but the challenge was that the court data were organized by cases, not by individuals. Which meant there wasn’t a straightforward way to determine how many convictions any individual person had, the types of convictions on an individual’s record, or how long it had been since someone’s last conviction. The court data also had dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of people with the same or similar names—often variations of the same person’s name based on entry errors.

We pioneered a new approach by using off-the-shelf entity resolution software, which employs machine learning to match corresponding records by comparing fields of information and handling common misspellings and data entry errors. While this software is already trusted by government for other purposes, it had never been used for automatic record clearance. The software incorporated common-sense and culturally aware name-matching techniques that were able to match nicknames, abbreviations, misspellings, reorderings, name changes, compound surnames, and more. Once we had created “individuals” from the court record data, all that was left was to write an algorithm that looked at these individuals’ conviction totals, types, and timelines.

This is just one example of our “advise and assist” approach to making automatic record clearance a reality across states. Our approach is built on three core principles:

  • We work with advocates, policymakers, and criminal legal system agencies to design policies that are impactful, implementable, and equitable.
  • We work with criminal legal system agencies to implement automatic record clearance policies.
  • We work with policy makers, government agencies, community organizations, and people living with records to understand how government can provide services that inform people about their records and how automatic record clearance will impact them, and connect those people to additional legal support so they can take advantage of the fresh start automatic record clearance provides.

These principles have allowed us to help states craft policies that have the power to change lives—and to make sure those policies are fully implemented and understood by the people they affect. Our approach has supported a transition away from the status quo of an outdated, petition-based system that consistently fails the people who need it most. We’re helping to foster a transition to record clearance as a service that automatically eliminates barriers and helps people understand how to make the most of a fresh start. It’s what we all deserve, and it’s what we’re committed to helping states achieve.

Are you a government practitioner working on an automatic record clearance policy? Get in touch to explore partnership opportunities.

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