Rasa Legal Uses Tech to Clear Criminal Records and Create Opportunity
Header and headshot photo credit: Justin Hackworth
By Robby Poffenberger and Mark Tullis
According to state statistics, more than one in four Utahns have some type of criminal record. This is over 800,000 people.
Even old and minor criminal records can have a lasting impact. When 4 out of 5 landlords do background checks, housing can be difficult to get. Employment opportunities can be denied for years or even decades. This creates massive workforce issues for employees and employers alike, especially in fields like nursing, where workers are in high demand.
A new law aims to change that. In 2019, Utah state lawmakers unanimously voted to pass a Clean Slate law, allowing certain criminal records to be automatically expunged from people’s records. The benefit of this law is substantial—taking effect in February of 2022, hundreds of thousands of minor records will be expunged, making it possible for many thousands of people to pass background checks and move forward with their lives.
Still, hundreds of thousands of people will not experience that benefit. Certain misdemeanor and all felony records are not eligible for automatic expungement. To clear these types of records, an individual must apply for expungement, and navigate a lengthy court process that can cost thousands of dollars in legal fees. According to Noella Sudbury, founder and CEO of Rasa Legal Benefit Corporation and one of the chief architects of Utah’s “Clean Slate” law, 75 percent of people who begin the expungement process, and even pay money towards it, never finish. Meanwhile, these people continue to be blocked from obtaining housing, employment, and other opportunities.
“They've done the work,” Sudbury says. “They’ve cleaned up their lives, they've found recovery, they've been crime-free, and they're still just getting door after door slammed in their face.”
To solve this problem, Sudbury, a lawyer by trade and staffer to former Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, initially looked to government and nonprofits. But it soon became clear to her that if she truly wanted to tackle this problem at scale, she needed two things: tech talent and capital.
“I could not find talented people in tech who wanted to work for this nonprofit,” says Sudbury. “I found many people who said, ‘I'll give you five hours, ten hours, of my time a month. But I've worked long enough in government and nonprofits to know that when you don't resource things properly, and when you don't plan for the long term, it doesn’t get done right, and as soon as leadership turns over, it goes away.”
Sudbury turned to tech for a solution. In February 2022, she launched Rasa, a legal tech company on a mission to make the process of clearing a criminal record simple and affordable for everyone. People access Rasa through a web app that searches and analyzes their Utah state records to see if they are eligible for expungement. If the app finds records eligible for expungement, it allows them to obtain legal representation for a fraction of the cost of a traditional lawyer.
Using the platform, Rasa successfully cleared 228 Utah cases in 2022, with over 1,000 more in process.
Understanding how this high-impact law and successful startup came to fruition in such a short amount of time requires understanding Sudbury herself and her view on criminal justice that came from years of experience and study.
As she puts it: "The best thing we can do for most people in the criminal justice system is to keep them out of it."
Born and raised in the Sugar House neighborhood of Salt Lake City, Sudbury did her undergraduate studies at the University of Utah where she was quickly drawn to social issues.
“I’ve always been obsessed with poverty,” she says. “My mother grew up in poverty. When she married my father, it just completely transformed her life. That was not true for some of her other family members, and I always thought that was really unfair. I started to wonder, why are some people born into poverty? What keeps them in poverty? What gets them out of poverty?”
After graduating with an interdisciplinary degree in Social Justice, Sudbury enrolled in the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah, and following law school, did a clerkship for the Utah Supreme Court. The judge she clerked for noticed Sudbury had a particular interest in criminal law and suggested she consider becoming a public defender, which she did. Her experience in the criminal justice system caused her to have concerns about its effectiveness to help people.
“I learned that the criminal justice system is totally broken and in most cases, was not addressing any of the needs or the real reasons why my clients were in it,” she says. “Poverty, mental health, substance use, trauma, violence—all of these issues were the real reasons why my clients were in the justice system. And no one was talking about them, no one was dealing with them.”
Work with Mayor Ben McAdams and Local Leaders
Feeling dissatisfied, Sudbury went into private practice and later took a position at Goldman Sachs. She continued to follow criminal justice reform efforts in the state. She became a fan of then-Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams and his programs. She didn’t know it at the time, but Mayor McAdams would ultimately lead her back to the reform work she does today. I really credit Ben for a lot of the work,” says Sudbury. “I would probably still be working for Goldman Sachs if not for him. She ran into McAdams at a fundraiser where they talked about criminal justice reform. After learning about her career background and passion for the issue, he told her he wanted to do more on criminal justice reform and she should consider working for him.
Her Goldman Sachs salary was much higher than what the government post offered, but she couldn’t resist the opportunity to be in a role with such high potential impact.
“It was an opportunity to work on the policy side where you can actually change the system at scale and have access to some of the leaders, agencies, and budgets that are contributing to the problems I was seeing in the public defender's office. So,” she said with a laugh, “I took a massive pay cut.
After consulting with local leaders, law enforcement officers and members of the community struggling with criminal records, Sudbury concluded that one issue that people wanted to work on is expungement. But the process, as previously mentioned, is painstakingly slow, costly, and complicated. So, they took on their first project: an “Expungement Day.” The goal was to take a system that usually takes a whole year and bring everyone in the system to a warehouse: invite people with records, get volunteer attorneys, bring the court officials, and make it all free. “People arrive with a record and leave without a record,” she said.
The event was promoted and received press coverage; by the time Sudbury got to the facility to set up at 6 a.m., people were already in line. Hundreds eventually showed up.
"Noella is a leader and problem-solver who never takes no for an answer," says Ben McAdams, currently founder of Common Ground Institute and a Sorenson Impact Senior Fellow. "If a solution doesn't exist, she creates the solution. When she saw that the system wasn't doing what it needed to do or it wasn't happening fast enough, Noella created new solutions our community needed. She did that with Expungement Day and leading criminal justice reform efforts in Salt Lake County. The work Noella is leading with Rasa will impact thousands of lives in communities across the U.S."
Witnessing the scope of the problem was a hinge moment, Sudbury said. “Just seeing the diversity: old people, young people, struggling people of all races and backgrounds. They all just wanted to meet a lawyer who might be able to help them remove the barrier of a criminal record. Like all of us, they were people–wanting a safe place to live, a good job, and to support their families.”
While they weren’t able to help everyone, they learned a lot about the broken expungement process. Sudbury knew there had to be a more efficient way. While researching what other states did, she discovered advocates in Pennsylvania were trying to pass the nation’s first “Clean Slate” law where a computer system would automatically expunge the records of eligible charges.
‘Yes, we should do this. We totally can do this in Utah,” she says.
Sudbury contacted the people in Pennsylvania who worked on that bill, picked their brains, and began a similar campaign in Utah. She found that touting the benefits to the job market and employers was a message that resonated on both sides of the aisle. Studies show that not only does expungement strengthen the workforce, but data shows when someone’s records are expunged, their income increases by an average of 22 percent after one year, lowering the poverty level.
Sudbury finds that statistic astounding.
“It's so crazy to me because, ‘You're the same person now that you were 6 months ago when you had those charges on your record!’”
In February 2019, Utah’s “Clean Slate” bill passed unanimously in the Utah State Legislature. It went into effect in February 2022, and will clear over a half a million records automatically.
"However, there is a difference between clean slate expungement for certain types of records, which is automatic, and petition-based expungement, which is not automatic," clarifies Sudbury. "People who have the types of records not eligible for automatic expungement must petition the courts to get their records cleared."
Last year the state ran a pilot program that eliminated government fees associated with petition-based expungement. Early data showed that pilot was very successful, but a bill—HB323—designed to make this fee change permanent failed this this year's legislative session. Beginning in July 2023, people clearing their record under the petition-based process will have to pay government fees associated with expungement. These fees amount to a $65 application fee, plus approximately $200 in additional fees for every expungement case.
"The Salt Lake Chamber has been a vocal supporter of the Clean Slate initiative because it expands talent pools and increases productivity by tapping into a vast, underutilized, and skilled talent pool," says Derek Miller, President and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber. "We recognize that this common-sense policy will grow our workforce, save tax dollars, and make our communities safer. Thousands of Utahns can benefit from this legislation and get a second chance, thanks to the work of Noella and Rasa Legal."
After the bill passed, Sudbury started getting phone calls from people in other states asking, “How did you do that?” With McAdams mulling a run for congress, she knew it was the right moment to pursue criminal justice reform in an area with broader reach.
“There’s a tremendous amount of bipartisan support and national movement around this issue,” she says. “I decided, maybe I could help other people have this success in the same way that those people from Pennsylvania helped me, and I can develop talking points and help them engage their chambers and public safety leaders.”
She started this work with a nonprofit, but pivoted to the tech startup world. This approach was successful because it attracted more employee talent and provided more opportunities for capital. It was also a natural fit since technology was starting to become a major factor in widespread criminal record expungement.
Rasa Legal’s app is set up for two purposes: First, to allow people to easily search for and view their own records to determine whether they have any records eligible for automatic expungement; second, to provide access to affordable legal counsel if individuals have records that are not eligible for automatic expungement, but can be cleared under the court-based expungement process.
In designing the app, Sudbury talked to a large volume of people with criminal records and found that $500 was “a fair and doable price” for most people—considerably less than the $1,500-3,000 most lawyers charge. The $500 covers up to three separate cases, with $250 per additional charge. Searching the app to view all eligible records costs only $15.
Rasa is able to provide affordable legal representation by using technology to automate documents and workflow, which minimizes the need for attorneys and the cost of labor. Sudbury said she hopes to bring the $500 price down even further as Rasa becomes more tech enabled.
True to their mission, Rasa also employs formerly incarcerated people to help with their legal work.
“Training formerly incarcerated people makes such a big difference to the person with a record,” Sudbury says. “More than I ever could have imagined.
Rasa Legal did an initial raise of $1 million from angel investors last year. The company’s high rate of success in clearing records and early revenues has made it easier to raise cash—Rasa is planning an additional pre-seed raise of $750,000 in the coming months.
After a storied career path through public defense, Goldman Sachs, the political and non-profit world, it seems Sudbury has found a home in tech.
“I feel fortunate to have discovered how we can effectively use capital and tech to do this work,” she says. “Now we have revenues and we're a business and we're doing great.”
Since 2019, eight additional states have adopted “Clean Slate” laws.
To learn more about Rasa Legal’s mission and the app’s capabilities, visit www.Rasa-Legal.com.