Wednesday, June 8, 2016
From the New York Times:
Matthew Stubenberg was a law student at the University of Maryland in 2010 when he spent part of a day doing expungements. It was a standard law school clinic where students learn by helping clients — in this case, he helped them to fill out and file petitions to erase parts of their criminal records. (Last week I wrote about the lifelong effects of these records, even if there is no conviction, and the expungement process that makes them go away.)
Although Maryland has a public database called Case Search, using that data to fill out the forms was tedious. “We spent all this time moving data from Case Search onto our forms,” Stubenberg said. “We spent maybe 30 seconds on the legal piece. Why could this not be easier? This was a problem that could be fixed by a computer.”
Stubenberg knew how to code. After law school, he set out to build software that automatically did that tedious work. By September 2014 he had a prototype for MDExpungement, which went live in January 2015. (The website is not pretty — Stubenberg is a programmer, not a designer.)
With MDExpungement, entering a case number brings it up on Case Search. The software then determines whether the case is expungeable. If so, the program automatically transfers the information from Case Search to the expungement form. All that’s left is to print, sign and file it with the court.
In October 2015 a change in Maryland law made more cases eligible for expungement. Between then and March 2016, people filed 7,600 petitions to have their criminal records removed in Baltimore City District Court. More than two-thirds of them came from MDExpungement.
“With the ever-increasing amount of expungements we’re all doing, the app has just made it a lot easier,” said Mary-Denise Davis, a public defender in Baltimore. “I put in a case number and it fills the form out for me. Like magic.”
The rise of online legal forms may not be a gripping subject, but it matters. Tens of millions of Americans need legal help for civil problems — they need a divorce, child support or visitation, protection from abuse or a stay of eviction. They must hold off debt collectors or foreclosure, or get government benefits.
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They often have to fight these battles on their own because — despite the fact that civil cases can result in people going to jail, or losing a house, health care or custody of their children — they don’t have the right to a lawyer, as defendants in criminal cases do. Four out of five people who need a civil legal aid lawyer don’t have one.
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