A Behind the Scenes Look at Expunge.Maryland, Your Automated Expungement Paralegal
BY Jason Tashea | Tuesday, December 9 2014
This past summer my colleague Jon Tippens and I forked Smart Chicago’s Expunge.io to create ExpungeMaryland.org. Since ExpungeMaryland’s launch in July, there has been interest in how we created the app. This post provides background to other jurisdictions looking to replicate the expungement app model.
First, let’s define expungement, its importance, and why this app matters. Expungement is the legal process that allows a person to erase an eligible criminal case from the public court database. In Maryland, a person will have a public criminal record if they were convicted of a crime. A person will also have a public record if they were acquitted or found not guilty. This means that when applying for jobs or housing, that person’s name comes up in public criminal record searches despite never being convicted of a crime. This can cost them employment, a home, or even some government services. For this reason, everyone that can needs to expunge their case to help propel their lives forward.
Beyond the social need for better access to expungement, there is also a digital need. Google Trends shows that Maryland is one of the nation’s top searchers for "expungement." Though people were seeking help online, the online results were dismal. The first page of results had long, legalistic PDFs and ads for pay attorneys; none of them linked to pro-bono legal assistance; and some were even legally inaccurate. Expungement search results were not empowering people.
In its simplest form, ExpungeMaryland is an automated-paralegal. By answering a series of “yes” or “no” questions, the app can tell you, with relative certainty, if your case is expungeable. If it is, the app connects you to a pro or low-bono attorney. If the law precludes you from expunging your case, the app connects you to other services that may be of assistance. Both outcomes are empowering. Before, if you searched for “expungement Maryland” you found the results discussed above and couldn’t receive answers to your specific questions. Now, by answering a few “yes” or “no” questions about your criminal history, you know whether or not expungement is an option for your specific case. This feature is what makes this tool unique.
As we built the program, breaking down Maryland expungement law into a "yes" or "no" flowchart format was the most difficult and time-consuming part. We worked hard to balance the legal particulars of the statute and the need to make the language colloquial and easy to understand. To do this, we focus grouped both lawyers and lay people to make sure that the language provided broad accessibility while remaining legally sound.
Beyond the content of the site, we had to decide whether to make a mobile app or a website with responsive design. We opted for the latter because of the population we sought to help. Unaware of the level of smart phone penetration amongst our target demographic, which is lower on the socio-economic scale, we decided that greater access would be attained through a website. At a minimum, everyone could access the internet through Maryland’s public library system. There still may be a mobile app, but for the beta we wanted to cast the widest net possible.
Second, beyond program development and the law, this project required community organizing. We appealed to the Maryland legal community to take on the legal work generated by this project. While some felt this program was alchemy, the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service and Mid-Shore Pro-Bono liked the idea and agreed to take referrals from the app. ExpungeMaryland now connects users to pro or low-bono legal services in 21 of Maryland’s 24 counties.
We also reached out to other professionals that work with populations that often have a criminal record. Many of these professionals have social work backgrounds, and this app assists their existing work with these clients. As we continued to evangelize ExpungeMaryland, we were surprised and excited by the enthusiasm it received from the government. Maryland's congressional delegation is using the app, because expungement comes up through their constituent services. The Maryland Governor's Parole Board, Department of Public Safety, Public Defenders Office, and judiciary have all stated they have used the app in some capacity.
Beyond the legal work and community organizing around the app, we needed to drive online traffic to the site. Luckily, most top-result sites for Maryland expungement were willing to link to ExpungeMaryland as a resource. After meeting with Google representatives at PDF2014, we applied for and were awarded a Google AdWords grant. Both of these steps increased traffic.
Lastly, there are still uncharted places to go. For example, the app could retrieve a user’s case itself by harnessing Maryland Case Search. This would permit users to view their case with certainty and better answer the questions on the site. Second (and this is a long-term dream), ExpungeMaryland should be integrated into the Maryland courts' eFile system. Creating fewer steps to file will help more people get through this process, and it will also lighten the burden on the courts. Even with work to be done, this hasn’t stopped people from taking advantage of the site; the app has had 411 unique users since July. It’s not nearly enough, but it’s a start.
Beyond the “how-to” that is this article, the biggest takeaway should be, as neophytes, Jon and I figured it out. We are not professional developers. We had no experience digitizing the legal experience before his project. At the time, I was a lawyer and advocate for criminal justice reform in Maryland, and Jon was a third-year law student. Yet, with just a little bit of coding and some time we opened a new venue for people to get needed legal services in Maryland. ExpungeMaryland’s code is on Github, there’s nothing stopping you from doing the same.
Jason Tashea is a is a criminal law and legal tech consultant and freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @jtashea.