This article was originally published on 02/22/2019

The United States’ incarceration rate is five times higher than most other countries in the world with 716 people for every 100,000 residents incarcerated, as reported by Prison Policy. 

When you have a criminal record, the consequences extend beyond serving time and can involve being denied housing, employment, and even the right to vote.

Most states have record clearance laws, but the process can be long and confusing. However, one Code for America project aims to make the process much more accessible.

Clear My Record is a free online tool assisting people in California with navigating the complicated process of clearing their record. People can fill out a “short, easy-to-understand” application online that typically takes 10 minutes to get connected with a public defender or legal aid attorney.

Currently, 14 counties have public defenders or legal aid officers who use Clear My Record.

“A criminal record becomes a lifelong sentence, serving as both a direct cause and consequence of poverty,” the project’s founder, Jazmyn Latimer, said, “Code For America is working to streamline and automate the record clearance process to provide a fresh start to millions of Americans.”

Since April 2016, Clear My Record has helped over 11,000 people connect with attorneys. Not only did the tool drastically reduce the time to apply from days to minutes, but people are hearing back from attorneys faster. Instead of waiting 3 months, people hear back in 3-7 days.

In May 2018, Clear My Record launched a second program in San Francisco to automatically clear eligible convictions. For the project, Code for America partnered with the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office.

“We built the core technology that uses optical character recognition to scan and read a criminal record, determine eligibility for record clearance under California law, and auto-fill any court forms necessary,” Latimer said.

Estimates hold that around 7,000 cases will be cleared. In addition, Clear My Record’s team is expected to automatically clear 250,000 marijuana convictions by 2020.

Latimer says the inspiration for building Clear My Record came after the passing of Proposition 47.  It led to her and co-founder Ben Golder to developing the program. Prop 47 lets low-level felony convictions be reduced to misdemeanors. After looking into how many people actually take advantage, Latimer found less than 8% of people who qualify receive it, “simply because the process is opaque, hard to understand, hard to navigate, and costly for both people with a record and for government.”

Jazmyn Latimer, founder of Clear My Record

Tech is often noted as having the potential to exacerbate existing issues around surveillance and incarceration. Latimer also noted Clear My Record shows that “when someone decides to build tech projects that specifically serve communities of color, it has the potential to reach more people who might be in need of that kind of help.”

“It means we can reach more of the community than we might have otherwise without tech, which is important because the black community is often left out of the innovations and startups you typically see coming out of Silicon Valley,” Latimer added.

By utilizing tech, governments also have less of an excuse to not do more. Clear My Record shows how technology can make the process faster and, as a result, cheaper, all while serving the people who need it.

“Over the past four years I’ve talked to hundreds of people who can’t move on because of their criminal records and all their stories have a similar thread,” Latimer said, “they feel left out, they feel discouraged, they feel overwhelmed. I do this work to show people who have a record that they matter.”

Latimer is moving on from Code For America, but Clear My Record will continue to be housed under it. Her next project will be joining Nava PBC to work on public benefits and modernizing old government systems, although she plans to remain involved in criminal justice reform.

“I will continue to find ways to use my design and technology skills to help people who’ve been pushed to the margins of society because of their record,” Latimer said. “I look at what I’ve done with Clear My Record as just the first of many more attempts to fix the injustices created by the justice system, and I hope it inspires more technologists to do the same.”