An Algorithm Wipes Clean the Criminal Pasts of Thousands

By Dave Lee, BBC News

This month, a judge in California cleared thousands of criminal records with one stroke of his pen. He did it thanks to a ground-breaking new algorithm that reduces a process that took months to mere minutes. The programmers behind it say: we’re just getting started solving America’s urgent problems.

Piero Salazar is sitting at a wooden table, swamped by paperwork. His anxious family looks on.

He’s one of around 50 or so people who have come to this community center in San Fernando, near Los Angeles, to take part in an “expungement clinic” - a free service for those looking to get their criminal records removed or reduced. A team of lawyers, working pro bono, sit behind a long counter and call people forward when their number is up.

On this Saturday morning, most here, Mr Salazar included, are seeking to have cannabis-related convictions expunged under California’s Proposition 64, a measure passed in 2016 that made marijuana legal in the state. As part of the new law, those with prior convictions could now seek to have them struck off their record.

Piero Salazar was one of around 50 people attending the expungement clinic

Piero Salazar was one of around 50 people attending the expungement clinic

“It makes me feel better to know I’m not a felon,” says Mr Salazar, filling in his forms.

Monique Herrera is here with her young son.

“I want to just get this off. Get clean. Do what I have to do and have a better life.”

It’s estimated there are a million people in California with a cannabis-related charge in their past, an invisible shackle that blocks opportunities to get housing, jobs and thousands of other things most of us would regard as necessities.

Yet, fewer than 3% of people thought to qualify have sought to have their records cleared since the passing of the new law.

It’s thought many are overwhelmed or intimidated by the complex expungement process. The clinic may only come to town once every few months, if at all. Others simply don’t know expungement is possible.

But now, work to automate this entire ordeal has begun - with remarkable results.

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Olivia McDowellComment