Volunteer Spotlight: Making Record Clearance Accessible to Those Who Need It Most

How Code for Durham is making it easier for people with low incomes to clear their criminal records and pursue new paths
Code for Durham volunteers visit the DEAR team
Code for Durham volunteers visit the Durham Expungement and Restoration team.

A criminal record can present enormous barriers to housing, employment, and access to basic necessities like drivers’ licenses. For people living with a criminal record, it can feel like a shadow that follows them everywhere—which is why record clearance, a process that expunges eligible data from the criminal legal system, is such an important policy priority in many states right now. But even in places where record clearance is available, it isn’t always accessible, especially to people with low incomes who can’t afford a lawyer to navigate the complicated expungement petition process. 

In recent years, several Code for America Brigades have taken on the challenge of record clearance at scale. One of them is Code for Durham. In partnership with the Durham Expunction and Restoration Program and the Legal Aid of North Carolina, they’re trying to make record clearance easy and accessible for those who need it most. 

Code for Durham volunteers developed the DEAR Petition Generator, a user-friendly program that takes data from a person’s criminal record and automatically generates the petition forms necessary to apply for expunction. The tool reduces the time spent on a single petition from a few hours to a few minutes and reduces errors along the way—meaning attorneys can go from serving hundreds of clients a year to thousands, dramatically expanding the accessibility of expunctions to clients with low incomes. This year, Durham Mayor Stephen M. Schewel declared February 15, 2021 “Code for Durham Day” in recognition of the group’s work in partnership with the city. 

We spoke with Celeste Richie, a Project Manager with Code for Durham, about the impact of the Brigade’s work and what’s on the horizon for this group of volunteers. 

Tell us a little about your background and how you got involved with the Brigade Network. 

I have a background in public policy and evaluation, with an emphasis on the public workforce system and helping federal, state, and local governments use data and research to make better decisions. I started volunteering with Code for Durham in November of 2018 thinking that I might do some data analysis, but it turns out that my relationship and project management skills have been more valuable to the team. 

In civic tech projects, there’s often a heavy emphasis on the tech—how did volunteers with civic skills contribute? 

I appreciate this question so much, because I was a bit intimidated when I joined the project team thinking that I wouldn’t have much to contribute. I’ve been able to support the project through project management and relationship building, as well as getting the word out about the project through media outlets. By taking on seemingly simple tasks like facilitating meetings, the rest of the team is able to focus on building the tool. We always need more project managers! 

The initial relationship matching was spearheaded by another Brigade leader on the civic side of things, Laura Biedeger, who has been a hub for many of the Brigade projects’ connections to local government. 

Talk about the partnerships in this project. How did these relationships contribute to the tool’s success?

We are so grateful to the DEAR and Legal Aid teams who have been amazing partners, as well as Durham’s iTeam who helped broker the initial relationships and get the project off the ground. The Legal Aid team’s partnership on the project has been essential, as they provide real-time feedback on the tool to help uncover bugs and provide the legal context for how the tool will be used so we can continue to improve upon it. They also keep us motivated by sharing how impactful the tool has already been on their ability to serve more clients and reduce human error.

What was the most difficult thing about the project? What was the most rewarding? 

The most challenging part of the project was getting enough records to properly test the tool. Given security concerns and the pace of client service, there were initially only a few users and a trickle of records coming through. New bugs would be uncovered as new types of charges or dates would come through. We now have a lot of users as this tool scales across the state, so the team has been able to fine tune it. It was also challenging to rebuild our team dynamic after the pandemic hit. 

The most rewarding aspect has been hearing from the legal team about how this tool impacts their ability to serve exponentially more clients, reduces human error, and eliminates a lot of tedious data entry. While we don’t interact with the clients, knowing how many more folks are able to have their records cleared is super rewarding. It is really energizing to see volunteer work make a meaningful change.

What else is Code for Durham working on?

There are a lot of exciting initiatives across the Brigade. Durham Streetwise is an information lookup tool for Durham residents who are not internet savvy or do not have readily available internet access. (The site will generate a simple printable reference PDF that can be used to find out how to sign up for utilities or find the nearest library, for example.) We’re also working on Digital Durham, a project to support the goal of bringing reliable, affordable internet access to everyone in Durham.

We’re working to build two apps: End Hunger Durham, which provides information and whereabouts of local food pantries, and Adopt a Drain, which allows residents to adopt storm drains and keep them clear of trash and debris in order to prevent flooding. 

What would you like other volunteers to learn from your experience? 

You don’t need coding skills to be helpful. There are so many other skill sets that are needed to create a successful civic tech project. It was also really useful for us to learn about all of the resources that Code for America has to offer, like the record expungement Slack channel. Reach out, there will certainly be other folks trying to solve the same problem you are! More than anything, recognize what an impact this type of partnership can have. It’s been an amazing way to connect with our community and city government.

Want to use your skills for civic good? Register to join us for this year’s National Day of Civic Hacking.

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