Mobile App Gives Felons a Fresh Start

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A screenshot from the Clear My Record app, with diagrams of how it works. (Courtesy of Code for America)

Junior Castañeda spent most of the past decade addicted to methamphetamines and suffering through stints of homelessness. After racking up five misdemeanors, including three DUIs, he cleaned up a couple of years ago and entered community college with dreams of attaining an advanced degree in business.

To finance his education, Castañeda sought part-time employment this spring as a ticket-taker for the Oakland A's. He thought the job interview went well, but a few weeks later Castañeda received a rejection letter denying him employment based on his prior criminal convictions.

Adding to his frustration, Castañeda discovered his rap sheet prohibited him from speaking to incarcerated youth at Contra Costa County Juvenile Hall. As an act of personal redemption, the 27-year-old had hoped to share his life story with young prisoners.

Junior Castañeda is taking advantage of a phone app to help clean up his criminal past. (Junior Castaneda/KQED)

Then, in March, Castañeda found out about a mobile app called Clear My Record. The platform helps people reduce or dismiss nonviolent convictions by submitting crime information to public defenders, streamlining a process that can take months and multiple visits to a county courthouse.

“All these companies have you run a background check," said Castañeda. "Well, I’ve changed. I’ve reformed from my old life and I can be a productive member of society. I can be an asset to any company.”


Clear My Record was developed by Code for America, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that works to improve government services through technology. The app launched one year ago in San Francisco and now operates in 11 California counties. Nearly 2,000 Californians have reduced or cleared a criminal record using the platform.

“Mostly we’ve seen people who were dealing with addiction in a period in their life. …They just want to erase any barriers and move on,” said attorney Jenny Montoya Tansey, director of safety and justice for Code for America.

"Failure to secure sustainable employment and housing is a key reason that people re-enter prison,” she said.

A string of California laws in recent years have helped individuals reduce and dismiss past convictions. Most notably, voters passed Proposition 47 in 2014, a controversial ballot measure that reduced some drug and theft felonies to misdemeanors. And last November saw the passage of Proposition 64, a measure legalizing recreational marijuana. The new law also lowered the penalties for certain marijuana-related crimes, allowing people to petition the courts to drop some felonies to misdemeanors, and misdemeanors to infractions.

But petitioning the court can be an onerous and confusing process, said Contra Costa County Deputy Public Defender Ellen McDonnell. Often an individual doesn’t know where to start the process, or they can be bounced from local agency to agency after receiving incorrect information, said McDonnell.

“For most people, the real struggle is finding out where and how to start this process,” she said. “It can be really challenging and it’s not necessarily transparent.”

Nearly one in three adults in California has an arrest or conviction record, and studies show that those who find and keep a job are far less likely to end up back behind bars.

In addition to cutting processing times for individuals, the Clear My Record app can also be used to transmit mass communication to people in the same stage of the record-clearing process, a benefit that hastens the flow of people moving through the legal system, said McDonnell.

“It has dramatically increased our efficiency,” she said.