Many states are looking to expunge or pardon petty crimes that have allowed the prison industrial complex to flourish and played a major role in the mass incarceration of people of color. Washington Governor Jay Inslee, for instance, announced his plans earlier this year for an expedited process that would allow 3,500 people convicted of small-time possession charges to apply for and receive a pardon without having to hire a lawyer or go to court.
One of the biggest barriers in formally pardoning convicts is inefficient bureaucracy and excessive paperwork that inevitably slows down and complicates the process. BBC reports that George Gascon, San Francisco’s district attorney, formally vowed in 2018 to actively work to expunge criminal records relating to marijuana, but quickly realized the overwhelming amount of work and time that would be required to sift through so many criminal records manually.
He enlisted Code For America, a nonprofit that creates tech-based solutions to problems regarding antiquated processes within the US government. The result was Clear My Record, an algorithm that can analyze the text in court files by using character recognition to decipher scanned documents. It automatically discards violent crimes, which aren’t eligible for pardoning, and then fills out the necessary paperwork for those that remain.
Marijuana was fully legalized in California in 2016 thanks to California’s Proposition 64, but there is are an estimated million people in California with a cannabis-related charge. There are about 10,000 in San Francisco who became eligible for expungement when Prop. 64 was passed, but only 23 had actually started the process before Gascon’s pledge.
Code For America was able to identify 8,132 eligible criminal records in a matter of minutes that dated as far back as 1975, the year in which the city started digitizing its files. These records will be joined with the additional 1,230 found manually already.
“It isn’t an algorithm doing something in isolation,” explained Evonne Silva, a leader in Code For America’s work with the criminal justice system. “It is actually very much a partnership with the government – the policy, the technology and the process combined.”