Nearly one out of every three American adults has a criminal record—and when thet fill out an application for a job, a new apartment, a loan, or even to attend college, there’s a good chance that their record might mean that they’re rejected. But in many cases, it’s possible to have the record expunged, meaning that it will no longer show up on background checks. However, the process is complicated and expensive, and thus out of reach of most people.
A new tool from Checkr, a company that works to make employer background checks more fair, makes those expungements easier. “We’re trying to streamline the process as much as possible with automation,” says Daniel Yanisse, CEO of Checkr, which partnered with Lawyaw, a company that automates legal workflows, and the law firm Avenues Legal LLP to build the tool. While someone might normally have to pay a lawyer $1,500, and file stacks of paperwork, the new tool automatically completes most of the process by asking for the answers to just a few simple questions.
Attorneys are still necessary for some steps in the process, which is different in every county in the U.S. But over time, as the tool is developed further, software may be able to handle everything. “The cost can almost come down to zero once you get full automation,” Yanisse says. Right now, as the tool launches with a focus first on expunging marijuana records in California, the cost of the process will drop from $1,500 to between $350 and $500 depending on the charge. Checkr applied for a grant and $100,000 of its own funding to cover the full cost for 1,000 participants over the next few months, and hopes to get additional grants to expand the free offering. “I think it’s only if it’s free to the consumer, and frictionless, that we can get to a scale of helping millions of people go through this process,” he says.
The software builds on Code for America’s work to automatically clear more than 140,000 records of marijuana convictions in California, where marijuana has been legal for recreational use since late 2016. (Courts are required to expunge these old records themselves, but the process is so inefficient that it can take years for it to happen if someone doesn’t initiate the process themself.) Tens of thousands of other people in the state will be able to use Checkr’s tool, which the company plans to expand to other states and other types of convictions. “We’re starting in California, but this can be available anywhere in the U.S.,” says Yanisse. “There are processes in every single state. So it’s just a question of funding for us to increase our coverage, increase the level of automation, reduce the cost down, and be able to offer this service to as many Americans as possible. That is really our goal.”
A growing number of companies are reworking hiring strategies to be fairer to people with criminal records, like the Body Shop, which shifted to an “open hiring” policy, which means the company essentially hires the first person who applies for many positions. But most employers still consider background checks a vital part of the application process. “In terms of giving second chances, being more open in hiring criteria is still a very nascent and early movement,” Yanisse says. “We’re definitely working with a lot of companies who have decided to be more progressive. I would say the shortage of workers in the U.S. is also a good pressure to have any business rethink their eligibility criteria. But it’s still relatively limited. So this is why expunging records is really key and really effective, because it clears the criminal record at the source.”