Featuring Alia Toran-Burrell, Associate Program Director, Clear My Record, Code for America

Q: What is Code for America and where does it fit in the world of criminal legal system reform?

Alia Toran-Burrell: At Code for America, we believe that government at all levels can and should work dramatically better than it does today. That’s why we work shoulder to shoulder with community organizations and government to build digital tools and services, change policies, and improve programs. 

The Clear My Record team at Code for America works to shrink the reach of the criminal legal system by fundamentally transforming the process of record clearance. Our goal is to make automatic record clearance—where all eligible criminal records get cleared automatically without people needing to go through a burdensome process—the standard across the country.

In the U.S. today, one in three people has a criminal record that appears on a routine background check. Decades of federal, state, and local criminal legal system policies and practices disproportionately targeting Black people and people of color—like the War on Drugs and mass incarceration—have made it so that criminal records are more common in these communities. A criminal record can be a life sentence to poverty, creating barriers to jobs, housing, education, and more. 

But, with the right policies and conscious use of technology, government can work to repair decades of criminal legal system injustices and fully implement important reforms to achieve more just and equitable outcomes. 

Q: How did Clear My Record start?

ATB: To help address the barriers criminal records impose, we launched an online intake tool in 2016 to connect people with the legal aid they needed to navigate California’s expungement process and file a petition to clear their records. With this tool, our team helped 22,000 people get connected to legal aid services. But we saw firsthand how the petition-based process wasn’t working—only a fraction of the people eligible for record clearance actually received relief. We wanted to go beyond tweaking the status quo to re-envision the whole process of record clearance so that anyone and everyone who is eligible for relief actually receives it. So in 2018, we shifted our focus to automatic record clearance.

Q: What are some of your biggest successes to date?

ATB: After we realized petition-based processes couldn’t scale to meet people’s needs, we partnered with the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office to create a process for automatic record clearance. We developed technology that reads criminal history data, determines eligibility for relief under state law, and produces the necessary documentation for courts. This work expanded to become a first-of-its-kind partnership with five District Attorney’s Offices in California, and then we released the technology to District Attorneys statewide. The free, open-source application combs through criminal history data to find people eligible for record clearance—at a speed of up to 10,000 eligible convictions in just a couple of seconds. To date, Clear My Record technology has helped identify 144,000 cannabis records for clearance.

In 2018, Code for America also joined forces with the Clean Slate Initiative. This bipartisan national movement supports state legislative campaigns to replace petition-based record clearance processes with automated clearing of criminal records. The initiative also works to expand the number and types of records eligible to be cleared. As part of the Clean Slate Initiative and in partnership with state organizations, the Clear My Record team collaborates with courts, criminal history repositories, other executive branch agencies in state government, policymakers, and advocacy groups to design clean slate policies that are implementable by governments and beneficial for people; the team also partners with state governments to implement these important new laws. 

With our support, states across the country have now passed and are working to implement Clean Slate laws, including Connecticut, Delaware, Utah, and Michigan, among others. These laws will automatically clear the records of millions of individuals. 

Q: What would need to happen to see these in Illinois?

ATB: There is growing momentum across the country for passing Clean Slate policies that rectify the harms of the past and remove barriers to opportunity. Illinois can join the field, and doing so will help Illinois fulfill its commitment to equitable justice policies and economic recovery for people impacted by the legal system. Indeed government and advocates have already taken steps in this direction. Not only is automatic record clearance possible in Illinois, but it’s the only equitable path forward, as record clearance leads to improved economic outcomes for people, at no risk to public safety.

Q: How can individuals and companies like Green Thumb support your mission?

ATB: 

  1. Advocate for automatic record clearance policies. Contact Clear My Record and the Clean Slate Initiative for more information.
  2. If you’re a company, become a second chance employer and hire people with criminal records.
  3. Donate to organizations doing this work, including:
    1. Code for America
    2. Cabrini Green Legal Aid

This is a sponsored content series, paid for by Green Thumb Industries. Submit YOUR questions on expungement and record-sealing in Illinois to socialequity@gtigrows.com.


Click here to view all articles in the GTI expungement series.