Across the country, dozens of states have enacted “second chance” legislation, designed to help individuals with criminal records shorten or downgrade their past convictions, clean their criminal records, and/or regain the right to vote, while legislatures have passed laws meant to outlaw discrimination in the criminal justice system. In theory, these laws should remove barriers to work and unlock opportunities for tens of millions of people. However, while new laws have expanded the bases for clearance, only a small fraction of those eligible for relief have received it. In fact, in a 2020 paper by Santa Clara Law Professor Colleen Chien, she estimates that “at least twenty to thirty million American adults, or 30 to 40 percent of those with criminal records, fall into this ‘second chance expungement gap,’ living burdened with criminal records that persist despite appearing to be partially or fully clearable under existing law.” (119 Mich. L. Rev. 519 (2020). A number of other legal protections on the books remain underutilized because of a lack of data and statistical proof.
On October 23, 2021, Santa Clara Law hosted its third annual Second Chances Empathy Hackathon to harness the creativity and problem-solving skills of the SCU and Silicon Valley communities to help address these critical issues by innovating and creating tools that help support organizations that are working to improve our criminal justice system. In addition, by bringing these issues to light, the Hackathon helps expand the empathy among law students and the broader community for these complex problems. This event was co-sponsored by the Santa Clara School of Law’s Center for Social Justice and Public Service, the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara Law, the Paper Prisons Initiative of Santa Clara School of Law, the Leavey School of Business at SCU, and the SCU School of Engineering.
“The Second Chances Empathy Hackathon provides law, business and engineering students a unique opportunity to work together to solve important societal problems,” said Evangeline Abriel, clinical professor and director of the Center for Social Justice and Public Service at Santa Clara Law. “This type of experience is invaluable as it builds skills that are critical for lawyers, such as working as a team, problem solving, and thinking creatively. Most importantly, it gives our students an opportunity to experience what many of them came to law school to do—to be of service to others and to create empathy for those we serve. It was such a privilege to watch these talented students from various disciplines combining their skills and knowledge to create such responsive solutions.”
“This event is a fantastic example of the interdisciplinary opportunities that are possible at Santa Clara Law because we are a part of the respected and nationally recognized Santa Clara University,” said Santa Clara Law Dean Michael Kaufman. “What an inspiration to see the innovative collaboration among so many members of our SCU community on such an important and timely issue in a way that braids together technology, creativity, teamwork, service, social justice, and policy reform.”
Speaker Inspire Hackers
On a Saturday morning, more than 75 people arrived early to Charney Hall, ready to hack and innovate together all day. The day kicked off with a talk by Professor Colleen Chien, professor at Santa Clara Law and founder of the Paper Prisons Initiative, who discussed the plight of millions of Americans trapped in the “second-chance gap” between eligibility for second chances and actually getting them.
The morning’s other speakers included Rudy Gastelo, a rehabilitation counselor for Santa Clara County who specializes in substance abuse, who gave an inspirational presentation about his own life and personal transformation and how he believed seeking expungement would unlock better opportunities. It also included Sharine Xuan JD ‘21, whose newly founded nonprofit Elevate Community Center provides free and lost-cost expungement and other services and coaching and financial information for members of the reentry community.
Judge Vanessa Zecher BA ‘84, JD ‘87, elected to the bench in 2010 and currently serving in the Superior Court of Santa Clara County, spoke about the importance of empathy.
Professor Sanjiv Das, the William and Janice Terry Professor of Finance at Santa Clara University’s Leavey School of Business, discussed the importance of hackers, not only for the computer revolution but also for solving social problems.
Then clients presented their missions and the technical and legal problems that they wanted hackers to help address. Highlights included the REFORM Alliance—where Jessica Jackson JD ‘11 is Chief Advocacy Officer—an organization that works to elevate problems with the probation and parole systems (see their moving video here). There were also representatives from the California Systems Impacted Bar Association (CSIBA), an organization by and for systems-impacted lawyers.
After the opening presentations, teams of data scientists, engineers, and lawyers-in-training dove in to create technology and legal solutions for projects posed by criminal justice and immigrant justice organizations and emerged at the end of the day with innovative and effective solutions. A few of the projects these intrepid hackers took on included: creating a fillable decision-tree form for immigrants seeking to ameliorate convictions through post-conviction relief, compiling reentry resources for online user-friendliness, creating machine learning classifiers to help address racial disparities in the criminal justice system, creating an online tool to educate users about expungement resources and how to access them, and crafting an online “experience” to help people understand the difficulties of reentry.
Students Reflect on the Hack Experience
“While I was acting as part of the ‘legal team’ of my group, I was surprised by how useful my engineering background was since it helped me explain the legal implications of our project in a way that helped the ‘tech team’ code the logic,” said Kiran Sutaria BS ‘20, Santa Clara Law 1L and Tech Edge JD student who also holds a 2021 graduate certificate in digital signal processing and machine learning from SCU. “I’ve noticed that statutory interpretation is very analogous to coding logic. Overall, I had a great experience working with my team and it was fun to work on a project that combined my legal skills and my coding experience.”
“I was very surprised by the amount of projects my team was able to accomplish,” said Sabreen Noel Ben Salem, Santa Clara Law 1L and Tech Edge JD student. “It was such an honor to be awarded second place, and to collaborate with people outside the law universe.”
After a day of hacking in multidisciplinary teams and mentoring, ten guest judges—including industry professionals and SCU faculty members—evaluated the final projects, and awards were presented to the hackers by Clinical Professor Evangeline Abriel. The day wrapped up with dinner and a screening of the prize-winning film, The Return Project, by documentary film-maker Katie Galloway.
A Broad SCU Collaboration
In addition to the speakers and sponsors, the event was organized by student, staff, and faculty collaborators from across SCU—its three graduate programs as well as undergraduates—as well as members of the Silicon Valley professional community: Leavey Business School Professors Dan Trepanier, Tao Li, Michele Samorani, and Sanjiv Das; the High Tech Law Institute’s Joy Peacock and Dorice Kunis; the Center for Social Justice and Public Service’s Evangeline Abriel and Kerrie Bindi; Santa Clara Law student organizers Sydney Yazzolino, Kelly Wynn, and Diann Jayakoddy; Engineering School Professor Ahmed Amer; Computer Sciences Professor Ahmed Ezzat; and Leavey Business School students Hussain Reza, Kratika Sharma, and Steven Wang. Other Santa Clara Law students generously volunteered their time during the event.
About Santa Clara Law
Santa Clara University School of Law, one of the nation’s most diverse law schools, is dedicated to educating lawyers who lead with a commitment to excellence, ethics, and social justice. Santa Clara Law offers students an academically rigorous program including certificates in high tech law, international law, privacy law, public interest and social justice law, as well as numerous graduate and joint degree options. Located in the heart of Silicon Valley, Santa Clara Law is nationally distinguished for its faculty engagement, preparation for practice, and top-ranked programs in intellectual property.