When California voters passed Proposition 64 in 2016, they made it legal to use marijuana recreationally and gave residents an opportunity to clear their records of certain marijuana-related convictions.
But the proposition came with a caveat: In order to get a past conviction reduced or dismissed, the burden fell to the person convicted — a process considered costly, time-consuming and confusing. Consequently, just 3% of people who qualify for relief received it, according to the nonpartisan group Code for America.
"Why are we asking people with convictions to go through this really burdensome process? Why can't government do that?" the group's senior program manager, Alia Toran-Burrell, recalled thinking.
Code for America saw an opportunity: To help clear the backlog of some 220,000 cases, the organization developed an algorithm to identify which residents qualify to have their records cleared or reduced. Now, district attorneys across the state are crediting the group with expediting an otherwise slow and tedious process.
The group's algorithm works by analyzing massive datasets of criminal records that meet district attorneys' eligibility standards. The resulting product is a legible database that pinpoints those who are qualified to have their convictions either eased or outright dismissed.
Since launching the program, Code for America has helped reduce or dismiss about 85,000 marijuana-related convictions in California, according to Toran-Burrell.
"The alternative would be that a district attorney would have to cull through hundreds of thousands of lines of conviction data to determine eligibility for each of the convictions that might be eligible," Toran-Burrell told NPR's Weekend Edition.
"This technology allows district attorneys to do this in an incredibly streamlined way," she said.
A year-and-a-half ago, five California counties teamed up with Code for America in a pilot program of its algorithm.
Los Angeles, the country's largest prosecutor's office, is also the largest county partner to use the tool. L.A. District Attorney Jackie Lacey announced earlier this month that close to 66,000 people with marijuana-related convictions are expected to get their cases dismissed and sealed as a result of the technology's assistance.
Echoing an argument commonly made by criminal justice advocates, Lacey said in an interview that marijuana-related convictions disproportionately affect people of color.
"What this does is it proactively gives people a fresh start," she said. "It gets those felonies dismissed off their records so that it will not preclude them from applying for jobs in the future or getting housing benefits or other kind of benefits that they may be entitled to."
The organization has now made the desktop application available so that district attorneys statewide can benefit from the algorithm, as districts race to meet a July 1 deadline to expunge or reduce all eligible convictions.
And as more jurisdictions across the U.S. move to decriminalize marijuana, the technology could have far-reaching applications.
NPR's Ian Stewart and Peter Breslow produced and edited the audio version of this story.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Thousands of people with marijuana-related convictions in California are getting their records cleared. And most of them don't even realize it. A pilot program in five counties has just wrapped up that uses a computer algorithm to instantly target eligible records. Code for America is a nonprofit that has partnered with district attorney offices in California to develop the program. And we're joined now from San Francisco by Alia Toran-Burrell, senior program manager for Code for America. Welcome to the program.
ALIA TORAN-BURRELL: Hi. Thanks for having me.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you were able to do this project because of Prop 64, a 2016 law that legalized marijuana use for adults. So how does this algorithm work?
TORAN-BURRELL: So the algorithm works by reading bulk criminal conviction history based on a district attorney's eligibility criteria and produces an output with eligibility determinations that a district attorney can then provide to the court for updates.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So your algorithm, in essence, sort of gobbles up records that meet the eligibility standards. And then what happens?
TORAN-BURRELL: It produces and outputs - pretty similar to an Excel spreadsheet - with all eligibility determinations already complete. So the alternative would be that a district attorney would have to cull through hundreds of thousands of lines of conviction data to determine eligibility for each of the convictions in their county that might be eligible. So this technology allows district attorneys to do this in an incredibly streamlined way so that people can get record relief sooner and so that the district attorneys and government resources are saved for other important things.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And these are for what? - simple possession, low-level dealing?
TORAN-BURRELL: Yeah. So when Prop 64 was passed, it identified four different types of marijuana convictions that somebody could get relief for - so things like possession, things like use. The problem, though, was that the vast majority of people who had those convictions weren't getting relief through the petition-based process. So the petition-based process meaning you have to go to court. You have to, in a lot of cases, have a lawyer. You have to take time off of work, potentially have to pay money. And so there were hundreds of thousands of people in California who were eligible for this conviction relief who just weren't getting it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And I think we're talking about 220,000 convictions?
TORAN-BURRELL: Yes. Across California, 220,000 convictions were eligible for relief.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And so once this happens, people may not even be aware that their records have been cleared. Why is that?
TORAN-BURRELL: Sure. The law itself didn't specify a method to notify those people who received conviction relief. Code for America is currently exploring ways that are effective to notify people. And each district attorney's office and county in California are also embarking on ways to get the word out to people in their counties who might have eligible convictions.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What does it practically mean for someone to have their record expunged?
TORAN-BURRELL: Sure. So 1 in 3 Americans have a criminal record. That number is immense. So that's between 70 million to 100 million people.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's a lot of people.
TORAN-BURRELL: It's a lot of people, yeah. And convictions present thousands of barriers for people in moving on with their lives - so things like getting housing, getting jobs, getting education. And so the ability to clear records is a way for people to get rid of these barriers that are potentially holding them back from being successful in their lives and their communities.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So the pilot phase is over. What happens now?
TORAN-BURRELL: While we were embarking on the pilot, we realized that we could actually expand the technology to help serve every county district attorney in California. And so we developed an easy-to-use desktop application that any district attorney's office can can download onto their computer. So it's a way for every county in California to take advantage of the technology that we provided to those five pilot counties originally.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Alia Toran-Burrell is senior program manager for Code for America. Thank you so much.
TORAN-BURRELL: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.