By Zoe Rivka Panagopoulos, #cut50’s Digital Manager
Since the First Step Act became law, thousands of people have returned to society after serving time in federal prison. But returnees face major challenges — including proving their identity.
People lose a lot while in prison (perhaps the grossest understatement I’ve ever made) — family, moments, hope, to name a few — but many less obvious things are lost as well, including a valid form of identification. And for those who get to step foot on the outside again, ID can be one of the biggest barriers to successful reentry.
At cut50, we hear a lot about this. Our team shepherded the First Step Act through Congress (and eventually the White House) alongside directly impacted advocates. And since the bill became law, we’ve been hearing a lot about the first challenge people face after prison: getting a valid form of ID.
Obtaining valid ID is the first step to doing really anything in society — opening a bank account, driving a car, becoming insured, applying for a job, the list goes on. And for a person trying not to break strict parole or probation requirements, the urgency to obtain ID fast is extremely high.
Unfortunately, cut50 is not a direct service provider, so we’ve had to refer a lot of returning individuals to local DMV offices, government websites, and elsewhere for help obtaining ID. In that process, we learned that even for a person without a criminal conviction versed in the intricacies of technology — finding a starting point to obtain ID is not easy. (Have you been to your DMV’s website lately? I won’t say it’s worse than going in person, but….)
Now imagine missing out on the past 10–30 years of technological and societal advances and then being told (without ready access to a computer or mobile device) to “go online” to start the process of obtaining ID. Oh yeah, and during your incarceration, you (unknowingly) fell victim to identity theft. Also, you have a mandatory probation appointment tomorrow, no money to get you there, and no way to conceivably open a bank account or even receive wired money that a family member is ready and willing to send you.
No, really — imagine that.
By the time Law Professor Colleen Chien invited cut50 to participate in a hackathon, we had been mulling over this challenge for quite some time. We knew we couldn’t fix all of the underlying problems (systemic poverty, lack of access to technology, mass incarceration, bureaucracy); but maybe with the assistance of some engineers and law students, we could make getting an ID just a little bit easier for recent returnees asking for help. Maybe.
So we brought this problem to Santa Clara Law for the Second Chances Empathy Hackathon (unique in that it seeks solely to incubate tech that benefits formerly and currently incarcerated people), attended by a mixed bag of student and professional engineers, some law students, and other nonprofits working in the criminal justice space. Most of the engineers had never met a formerly incarcerated person before, and most of the nonprofits had never been to a hackathon before. Our project pitch stood out in that included both a problem and a solution, that we limited its scope to something that could be developed in one day, and that we invited the directly impacted keynote speaker to meet with our team about the problem they were about to tackle.
We pitched a simple web application that takes user input from a multiple-choice question flow and returns one actionable step toward obtaining official ID. The pitch proposed two possible approaches to returning results: web crawling, or pulling from a dynamic database.
The latter was buildable in a day, so it beat web crawling. The “dynamic” part was key, because government websites don’t alert users when its page slugs and site navigation changes, or when pages and their corresponding documents disappear entirely (which they do, regularly). And nonprofits don’t have resources for manually checking an enormous database of URLs for broken links.
With these stipulations in mind, we wrote a script (and by “we” I mean Franklin Wang, a Palo Alto High School sophomore) that runs daily and combs through our database of government site links. It checks each URL’s health and whether or not any content on a given page has changed. And when the script identifies a broken link or changed content, such is indicated in an automated email report that a member of our staff receives daily.
Thanks to the expertise of our law school collaborators, we were able to identify (and narrow our focus to) the four most important types of ID in the United States:
- Passport or Visa
- Birth Certificate (including certified copies)
- Social Security card
- Drivers License or State ID
and craft a question flow that determines which of these documents an end user should prioritize obtaining. After they answer the questions, we redirect them to where they can start the process.
We didn’t remove the technology gap that limits the number of people who will be able to use this tool, the financial barriers associated with completing these applications, the time it takes to actually receive one of these crucial documents in your hands, or the fear of what lies ahead for someone without documentation (physical or otherwise) — but we did answer one very big question: “Where do I start?”
Life is daunting and overwhelming and often way too much. It is even more so for a person recently incarcerated facing seemingly (and at times, actually) insurmountable challenges associated with reentry. But nothing changes without taking the first step. So we built FirstStep.id.*
Turns out one day of focused collaboration between engineers, law students, and issue focused nonprofits was enough to build something that simplifies this process just a little bit. Now, imagine how many people could benefit if we all worked together more often.
No, really — imagine that.
*FirstStep.id was built for and by cut50 with Sara Sepasian, Gina Montarano, Reece Carolan, Lucas Negritto, Franklin Wang, Oliver Ni, and Riley Kong — with special assistance from Amir Jabbari, Nikki Pope, and Antonio Reza at the Santa Clara Law Second Chances Empathy Hackathon.
Originally published at https://medium.com on January 29, 2020.