What Do Second Chances Look Like?
Sept 15, 2017 at 11am
JAZMYN: Can you all hear me? All right. Cool. Let me see. Let me make sure I know how this works.
[Jazmyn plays the audio via remote]
AUDIO [via slides]: “I’m so tired of this. I keep trying to get my life together and my past keeps popping up. I know I made a mistake, but that’s a long time ago and I’m not the same person anymore. But every time I try to get it together, it’s like I can’t move forward.”
JAZMYN: Cool. All right. So... Anthony and I spoke for 20 minutes more than we planned. And we spoke a lot about a lot more than user research. And that was because he often interrupted my user research questions with a joke and a loud, endearing laugh, or to tell me an insight he had about his experiences. And about the world. He was genuine. And he was kind. And he was wise. And he also told me about how he witnessed the murder of his mother when he was nine years old. And how then he moved in with his grandmother. Who took care of him, and they became really close, but she passed away shortly after. And he then was being moved from house to house. Trying to find stability. Getting into trouble with his friends. Getting into fights in school. Stealing from the corner stores. And when he was 25 years old, he was arrested for possession of cocaine. And sentenced to five years in prison. That was... 30 years ago. And now Anthony is a really different person than he used to be. Just like all of us will be very different 30 years from now. He is trying to become a youth counselor for the juvenile detention center near his house, because he wants to mentor kids who might have had similar experiences to his when he was growing up. He has two children and he talked a lot about them. And he wants to make a really good stable life for them. He wants them to have the stability that he didn't have when he was growing up. But he's not able to do that, because he's been denied job after job after job, because of the convictions on his record, from over 30 years ago.
JAZMYN: So I'm Jazmyn Latimer. I work at Code For America, a non-profit organization that's full of government nerds and people who like to build technology. And we believe that one of the best ways to help people who are the most underserved in our country, one of the ways, is to do it by fixing government services and implementing government policies that are designed to help them. And to do it by using technology. Because you can do it at scale. And reach a lot of people. And so my teammates and I at Code For America are working on helping people who have a criminal record clear their old convictions from their criminal record, so that they can qualify for opportunities that they're typically withheld from, because they can't pass a background check. And we think this is super important. Because as with Anthony's story, having a criminal record, even for just one offense, can haunt you for the rest of your life. Even 10, 20, or 30 years after you've committed the offense. And this affects a lot of people. About 1 in 4 US adults has a criminal record. And the American Bar Association found 44,500 different state and federal legal restrictions for people who have a criminal record. So imagine if you had that many things restricting nearly every aspect of your life. And it is nearly every aspect of your life. The very things that restrict people who have a criminal record are the things that would help them get back on their feet and support themselves and support their families. So employment and professional licenses are the biggest barriers, but there's others. Like your eligibility for housing assistance or food assistance. And so with all of these things on this list, you can imagine how it would be really hard to get your life back on track after you've been incarcerated. But if we put just 100 people who were formerly incarcerated back to work, it would increase their lifetime earnings by $55, saving more than $2 million annually by keeping them out of the criminal justice system. The good news is California has already agreed that people who have a criminal record should be able to clear some things from it.
JAZMYN: The passing of Prop 47 in 2014 means people are now eligible to get their criminal convictions reduced and there are other statutes in California law that allow convictions to be dismissed completely. This makes 8 million Californians able to clear their record. My coworkers and I were really excited about this. This must mean people are able to go back to work, support their families, do the things they wanted to do. But then we found ourselves sitting in a crowded waiting room of a free walk-in clinic that only happens Tuesday mornings from 9 to 11, watching applicants wait around for three hours to speak with the one attorney assigned to Clean Slate on staff. We were holding our breaths while shadowing interviews between public defenders and their clients while public defenders patiently tried to decode what's on someone's completely unintelligible and often incorrect criminal record. So applicants can't even read their own criminal records, because it's written like this. We were volunteering at Prop 47 fairs and wading through crowds of hundreds of people who were trying to answer forms, and read legal questions that they didn't even understand. We were sitting with public defenders, watching them sift through piles and piles of paperwork, and try to get the applications over two months long, with a queue over two months long. And we were listening to applicant stories about how they're in really desperate situations. They've been working really hard at trying to change their life for a long time now. And they just feel... Beaten down. Crushed. And eliminated. Very few people actually get through the process of clearing their record. And only 7% of people who are eligible have even started the process in Los Angeles County. And in some counties, some public defenders' offices are so pressed for resources that they just don't offer any legal services for people needing to clear their record. And some county courthouses have restricted the number of petitions you can file to ten a week, so that means the wait time to get in front of a judge is about 6 months long or longer. So if you can't get through the process, it takes about 3 to 6 months to do it in one county, but for applicants with a record in multiple counties, which is a lot of people, they have to travel to each county they have a conviction in, figure out the very different process there, and start all over again. And so you can see how California did pass the policies that said that people can clear their record. It's just that very few people are actually doing it.
AUDIO [via slides]: “Hi. I'm calling to see if I can expedite the process. I'll be facing bankruptcy if I don't get this job, and they've only given me 30 days to get this done. And I can't count how many times I've been disqualified for a position by my criminal record.”
JAZMYN: So we wondered, “What would it look like to do this right? To actually give someone a second chance?” Maybe it should be accessible to them wherever they are. They shouldn't have to take a day off from whatever responsibilities they already had, travel from county to county, wait for three hours. Instead, they could just apply from wherever they are, whether at a record clearance fair, sitting with a caseworker, at their office, at home, on the bus, from their computer or their phone, in about ten minutes. And we also thought... This was actually a big deal. Because after we came to find out, after launching Clear My Record, 50% of applicants applied after business hours. So Tuesday morning clinic was capturing some people who could take the time to do that, but missing a large chunk of people who needed it but couldn't do it during the day. We also realized 40% of applicants have a record in multiple counties. So actually giving them a second chance means they shouldn't have to know the different legal requirements in all 58 counties in California. And they shouldn't have to be required to understand questions written in legalese at a 25th grade reading level. Instead they could select which of the 25 counties we're partnered with and we do the work of finding out which questions they need to answer, making sure the questions are easy to understand, and we get the application to the right people. And finally, we realized that 85% of our applicants prefer to be contacted via email or text message. And so actually giving them a second chance means they shouldn't have to wait for three months to hear back from their attorney, because their attorney is communicating with them through paper mail and they don't have a stable address or they're homeless. Or they do get the letter in the mail, but it looks something like this, and there's no phone number on it, so they're not really sure how they're supposed to understand what to do next. So we thought... What if attorneys could log into Clear My Record...
[Jazmyn gestures to the slide]
JAZMYN: And this is roughly what it looks like.They could click on update status. And they would get a couple of options of what the most common statuses are. And we would generate a message and send it to the applicant, based on their preferred contact method that they specified. When they applied. And so doing this means that applicants aren't left anxiously wondering what's going on with their case. Because this is actually really important to their lives. And they're less likely to drop out of the process because we're updating them frequently. And we tested these messages and bring the feedback back to the attorneys we're working with. And let them know... This is a good message, but this one still doesn't really make sense. Maybe we can make it better. And that brings it to our next point. By doing that, we reduced the time it takes to hear back from your attorney to about two days. But it brings me to the next point. That giving applicants a second chance also means that we're helping the people who are trying to help them. So the attorneys who are helping them fill out their paperwork and representing them in court. We have to make sure that our tools enable them to do their job with greater efficiency. So that they can help more applicants. And a good example of this is at the Contra Costa record clearance fair. All the public defenders used Clear My Record on their laptops instead of hand filling applications, which is what they usually did. And they hand submitted about 400 applications in 4 hours that day. And all these examples are to make the point that the implementation of policy really matters. Our team at Code For America thinks that one way to exemplify justice is to implement the policies that are supposed to help people and implementing them right.
AUDIO [via slides]: “I’m trying to clear my record. I've done everything I needed to do. But I feel like I'm being punished for the rest of my life. All I want is to make an honest living, give back to my community. But it feels like I don't deserve a second chance. After all my hard work, I deserve it.”
JAZMYN: And so... By looking at how policy works on the ground, we've started to shed some light on what it might take to get the implementation right in all 58 counties in California. But we didn't start there. In fact, just want to share some of our journey with you. When we started, we knew nothing about how one could clear their record, and we knew some of why it was important, but not that much. We didn't know very many people who needed to clear their records, other than some friends and family that have interacted with the criminal justice system. We had no public defender partners. All we knew was that Prop 47 was passed. We wanted to figure out if there was some way we could make it more effective. And so the first thing we did was just go where people who were trying to clear their records go. We went to Prop 47 fairs around the Bay Area and just learned from what was already happening. We put up kind of weird ads on Craigslist, on the jobs boards. We thought, People who want to clear their criminal records are probably looking for a job. Let's pay them to tell us about their experiences and afterwards, we'll try to help them as best as we can. Then we reached out to public defenders and legal aid organizations across the Bay Area, printed out this big map, which was our understanding of the process, and have them tell us... What are we missing? And where would you agree that we should focus? And then we had them rate some of our ideas and tell us like... Which ones do you think we should focus on? And which ones do you think are really risky and we should probably think more about? So we ended up doing the one on the far right [of the slide].
JAZMYN: Creating one application that goes to every county in California. Still working on that. And then we made a thing really quickly. And it wasn't even that good. And it still could be a lot better. And we just put it in front of the first public defender we could get our hands on, which was Elim at San Francisco public defender's office. And he said... This looks okay. I guess I'll accept applications from you guys every morning. We got them to put this horrible unassuming link on their website. But we were so excited about this. And it went to Clear My Record. It looks like a fancy website, but it really just linked to a Typeform. It's like SurveyMonkey. It wasn't a fully built application in the beginning. But we got our first users! Shortly thereafter. And we were super excited about it. And now, a year and five months later, we've gotten our 3,559th applicant. And every morning, instead of sending one email to the San Francisco public defender's office, we send 13 emails to 13 different organizations. So we made a lot of progress in our first year and our ultimate goal is to help anyone who is qualified to clear their record by law. They should be able to do it with less hassle than they were able to do before and in a much faster time. But as with any government problem, we hit a roadblock that we're trying to work around right now. To launch in any county in California we have to go to the public defender's office in that county and ask them: Hey, would you accept applications to Clear My Record? And they'll say sure. But sometimes they don't say yes. So it creates a bottleneck in the counties where we know applicants need help but we're not able to help them until someone gives us permission. While we understand that, we don't like it. And so we've decided that actually giving someone a second chance means that if you legally qualify to clear your record, you should be able to do it, regardless of what your county's resources are, and you should be able to do it on your own timeline. So we're trying to figure out if we can take the process of applying on your own without an attorney... Which is something that exists. It's just very hard to do... And use the same technique that we use with Clear My Record to fix this process.
JAZMYN: And then finally, we think that we should help people who are not just in California. There are laws in other states that allow people to clear their records. So we're also looking at which places might be good it go next. So we've covered a lot of ground. We're still going. I wouldn't say we're 100% successful, but we've shown that something is possible in the counties that we're partnered with. But most importantly, I think, we've started to shed some light on the the experiences of people who have a criminal record and the injustices that affect them far after they've served their time. Our goal is to implement government services... Design government services and implement policies that work but that also send a message to applicants that says they're not disposable. You matter. You are important, regardless of your past. And the only way that our government services work and the only way that our policies are a win is if they also work for you too. And so to elevate the voices of one of our applicants, one more time... I'll leave you with one more message.
AUDIO [via slides]: “You know, I am not my past. I am not just what's on my record. I am so much more than that. I am someone of worth. And I am going to contribute to this world. I, too, can bring change.”
JAZMYN: Thank you.
Jazmyn is a UX Designer and Researcher who works on problems that affect the lives of the most vulnerable and underserved people in our society. Recently, her focus has been on using technology and design to untangle the criminal justice system and to implement policy that works. She is currently the Lead Designer at Code for America under their Safety and Justice focus area and co-founded the product Clear My Record.