Nonprofit developed an open-source tool that has helped thousands clear their records of minor drug offenses.
  • Code for America, a nonprofit that uses technology to improve people’s access to government services, has helped over 85,000 people in California clear their record of minor drug offenses through its pilot programs.
  • The organization’s work is enabled by a California law that reformed and mandated the clearance of certain drug convictions that have disproportionately affected minorities, says the organization.
  • Every third American may have a criminal record, which hurts people’s chances of getting jobs, education, loans or government services. CFA wants to reform the system.

Thousands of Californians cleared their records of minor drug offenses that hinder many from finding jobs, housing or education with help from Code for America, a nonprofit that uses technology to improve the public’s access to U.S. government services.

The Clear My Record program, based on a process the organization built itself, may expand to other states — including Utah and Pennsylvania, which have passed drug reform laws similar to California, says Alia Toran-Burrell, a senior program manager at Code for America, adding that one in every three Americans has some kind of criminal conviction. 

”The collateral consequences that exist for people with convictions are staggering,” Toran-Burrell told Karma. “So the work that we are embarking on is meant ultimately to help remove those barriers for people to be able to move on with their lives, to support their families, to be involved in their communities.”

Code for America began Clear My Record in 2016 and accelerated it after California passed Proposition 64, a voter-approved measure that legalized the recreational use of marijuana and required resentencing for those with felony convictions for growing or selling the drug, among other matters. The organization estimates its pilot programs helped 85,000 people clear their records, though the current tally may be in the hundreds of thousands of records cleared, says Toran-Burrell.

The law also contained a provision to dismiss previous misdemeanor possession charges. A subsequent measure expanded on the original law and CFA estimates there are over 220,000 convictions potentially eligible for record clearance in California.

Code for America originally created a portal that helps people in 14 California counties connect with attorneys to help navigate the record clearance process. Previously, the process was confusing and time-consuming, creating obstacles, especially for lower-income people.

The organization later partnered with district attorneys across California to expunge records from a master list sent by the state’s Department of Justice. It would take thousands of man-hours to manually read the conviction data, so Code for America devised an open-source program that can read and reconcile the information much faster, says Toran-Burrell.

The organization has now set up a separate portal in Sacramento County so that people who have had their records cleared can access the information, as California law does not require the state to inform people if their record has been expunged.

Code for America does a range of work that provides support for people trying to access government services during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The U.S. government provides reduced or free school-lunch benefits for children whose families qualify for the help. But when the outbreak shut down schools, keeping children at home, the government experienced difficulties reading and consolidating the information in their different databases to locate the recipient children and make sure they received their food benefits, so Code for America created another application to help the government improve the information gathering, says Jahvita Rastafari, the marketing director for the organization.

CFA is backed by donations from the Rockefeller Foundation among others. But the work is so comprehensive that the organization welcomes funders and investors who are interested in economic and criminal justice.

“We start with serving the most vulnerable so that we can reduce [their]burden and create opportunity, “ Rastafari said. “ [The goal] is shrinking the criminal justice system and expanding our social safety net.”

Overall, the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man killed while in police custody, has increased calls for criminal justice reform.

CFA views their role as advocating for reform in different ways. The organization works for decriminalization, reducing incarceration and reinvesting in communities. “[Clear My Record] is directly related to remedying the failed war on drugs that disproportionately impacted communities of color and Black people in particular,” Toran-Burrell said.