Algorithmic Justice Could Clear 250,000 Convictions in California

The San Francisco District Attorney’s office (SFDA) and tech group, Code For America, are now part way into a pilot project to eventually clear around 250,000 convictions using algorithmic justice. 

The partnership between Government lawyers and techies started back in May 2018 and initially has been focused on clearing marijuana convictions under the local Proposition 64 initiative.

So far they have reviewed 43 years of eligible convictions, proactively dismissing and sealing 3,038 marijuana misdemeanours and reviewing, and recalling and re-sentencing up to 4,940 other felony marijuana convictions which were sentenced prior to Proposition 64’s passage in November 2016.

How it works:

The system determines eligibility for record clearance under state law, automatically fills out the required forms and generates a completed motion in PDF format. SFDA will then proceeds to file the completed motion with the court. 

The pilot ‘seamlessly’ clears criminal records under Prop. 64 for all individuals, with no action required on the part of the individual and with minimal staff time and resources from the SFDA’s office.

I.e. it finds the cases, identifies key data points and makes a determination, it then strips out the key data needed to complete the forms to clear the case. Humans then take over.

Is this a complex algorithm….? Nope, not super complex. It’s more of a ‘find, triage and form fill’ program. But still, it’s an example of how computer code can engage with legal matters at scale.

And, as noted, the long term aim is to expand this methodology to eventually clear 250,000 other cases, said Code for America in a statement.

Why is this a big deal? It matters because algorithmic justice, of a complex or simple variety, has come in for a lot of flak in the US, in part because of one truly major mess that was caused by the COMPAS system. So, it’s great to see algorithmic justice doing good.

At the launch of the pilot last year, District Attorney George Gascón, said: ‘When the government uses 20th century tools to tackle 21st century problems, it’s the public that pays the price.’

‘California has decriminalized recreational cannabis use, but a marijuana conviction continues to serve as a barrier to employment, housing, student loans and more. Lack of access to employment and housing are two primary drivers of recidivism, so until we clear these records it’s government that is effectively holding these people back and impeding public safety. I’m hopeful that this partnership will inspire many prosecutors who have cited resource constraints to join this common sense effort and provide this relief,’ he added.

And, Jennifer Pahlka, Founder and Executive Director, Code for America, said: ‘At Code for America, we believe government can work dramatically better than it does today, and the criminal justice system is one of the areas where we are most failing the American people. By reimagining existing government systems through technology and user-centred design, we can help governments rethink incarceration, reduce recidivism, and restore opportunity.’

So, algorithms getting involved in life changing legal matters….not all bad, after all…..

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