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Zuckerberg and Koch groups ally to clear eligible criminal records

The Zuckerberg Chan Initiative is allying with the Koch brothers’ Seminar Network to seek automatic clearance of  criminal records.
The Zuckerberg Chan Initiative is allying with the Koch brothers’ Seminar Network to seek automatic clearance of criminal records. (Peter Barreras/Invision/AP)

Groups with ties to technology titan Mark Zuckerberg are getting even more involved in the political arena, throwing their weight behind a new initiative that would automatically clear the criminal records of eligible offenders without them having to go through a lengthy legal process.

It’s another step toward engaging with Washington for Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, and is being done in coordination with the Seminar Network, the powerful political arm of the Koch brothers, and the progressive Center for American Progress.

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, founded by Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, and, a lobbying group formed by tech industry executives including Zuckerberg, are among several groups with ties to Silicon Valley that are pushing the effort.

The move comes as President Trump announced his support Wednesday for a separate bipartisan package aimed at overhauling U.S. sentencing laws. He said the “First Step Act” would give inmates a “second chance at life” after serving time.

Trump endorses bipartisan criminal-justice reform bill

The groups plan to unveil the “Clean Slate” initiative at an event Thursday in Washington, where Koch Industries General Counsel Mark Holden will appear with David Plouffe, a former senior adviser to President Obama who now serves as the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s president of policy and advocacy.

The effort aims to pass both state and federal legislation that would create digital systems to automatically clear records — eliminating a time-intensive and costly petition process for those who are eligible.

Although separate criminal justice reform may soon be considered in Congress, it’s not clear this new effort will be embraced by House members and senators in the near future.

Holden said this is not the first time the group has worked across party lines on criminal justice reform. He indicated this is one of many areas surrounding the issue, including bail practices, where the Koch network may team up with Silicon Valley.

“The tech world is going to be essential to reforms in the future,” Holden said in an interview.

Clean Slate has already been signed into law in Pennsylvania, and the group is now making a push to ensure other states follow suit.

The progress in Pennsylvania also caught the eye of Plouffe and his team at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. “There’s been a big technological challenge here,” Plouffe said.

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative helped the development of technology for the effort by providing financial assistance to Code for America, a group that builds technology services for government.

Between 70 million and 100 million Americans — as many as one in three — have some kind of criminal record, according to the Center for American Progress. Many Americans run into trouble with employers, landlords or educational institutions that do background checks in which their criminal records are a major component.

Rebecca Vallas, who leads CAP’s work on the issue, said tens of millions of Americans who have committed crimes — from minor infractions to those that took place long ago — are eligible to have their records cleared or expunged.

Yet to have their records cleared — and no longer turn up in a background check — they must undergo an expensive process of petitioning the courts, which frequently requires hiring a lawyer. Many people with criminal records also may not know they are eligible to have their records cleared, she said.

Furthermore, criminal records cross many different digital systems at various levels of government.

Vallas teamed up with Sharon Dietrich, a leading employment lawyer in Philadelphia, to push the first Clean Slate law through the Pennsylvania General Assembly. Dietrich said in her work as litigation director and managing attorney at Community Legal Services, requests from eligible people for record clearances were on the rise, especially in the digital age. Those requests only increased as technology makes it faster and easier to perform background checks.

“I had a client who told me it was easier to get a job when he came out of jail in the 1970s than it is to get one now,” Dietrich said. “The rat race has gotten faster and faster.”

Dietrich and her team used to try to clear records manually but soon realized the only way to effectively address the problem was to automatically clear them. After a bipartisan push in Harrisburg, Pa., legislators created a law to do just that.

Michigan, Colorado and South Carolina are among states seeking to follow Pennsylvania’s lead, Vallas said.

In Michigan, more than 95 percent of records eligible to be cleared have not been successfully expunged or sealed, according to analysis from University of Michigan researchers Sonja Starr and J.J. Prescott.

Much of the Clean Slate campaign’s momentum is focused on the state level, but a federal effort to create similar legislation for federal criminal records was introduced in August by Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.) and Rep. Rod Blum (R-Iowa), who lost his reelection effort.

That bill would automatically clear records for eligible marijuana charges and other nonviolent offenses. Rochester is seeking another Republican co-sponsor for the legislation because Blum lost his bid for reelection. She said it will be a difficult push at the federal level.

“At the federal level, the task is large,” Rochester said in an email. “The court systems and the Department of Justice do not have a standard protocol for easily communicating across different jurisdictions, but the challenge makes our task even that much more important.”

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