In November 2016, Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service received Tech Impact's Technology Innovation Award in the Skills to Succeed & Workforce Development Category, sponsored by Accenture. MVLS received $7,500 in funding to expand their Client Legal Utility Engine (CLUE), a web platform that "scrapes" data from a public judiciary database and matches it against MVLS' clients' criminal records to identify any expungable charges.
We've followed up on their progress:
Q: Have you been able to expand CLUE services in Montgomery and Prince George’s County, as indicated in your application? How have your Technology Innovation Awards funds been used so far?
Thanks to the Technology Innovation Award, MVLS expanded CLUE services to Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties. Specifically, the grant enabled MVLS IT Director Matthew Stubenberg to parse every Montgomery and Prince George’s County circuit and district court criminal case from the last 25 years in a database we created. We then built an algorithm to determine whether each criminal case was eligible for criminal record expungement. After running every case from these two counties through the algorithm, we determined there are at least 209,433 cases eligible for expungement in Montgomery County and at least 409,971 cases eligible for expungement in Prince George’s County.
In order to provide members of the legal and public interest communities access to this database, we built a public interface program that allows someone to type in a name and date of birth and it instantly tells them how many cases they have eligible for expungement. This interface allows community partners and workforce development sites to quickly determine whether their low-income clients are good candidates for expungement and connect them to an organization like MVLS, where they can get their record expunged free of charge. This interface can be found at www.mvlslaw.org/expungement-finder/
Q: What impact has CLUE had in the community? Have you been able to reach more clients or form any new partnerships because of it?
We believe that expanding CLUE to Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties will have a marked impact in these communities. Criminal records present the most significant barrier to employment, access to credit, housing, college admission, and student loans. Over half a million cases in these two counties are eligible for expungement. CLUE and MDExpungement make it easy for job trainees or job seekers to have their records expunged which is a major step toward employment, credit, housing or education.
We are in the process of reaching out to new partner organizations whose clients would benefit from criminal record expungement as well as organizations who have the technical capacity to access the raw data in the database to improve upon the expungement algorithm and create more specific expungement analytics. We have already contacted several groups and partners in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties that we have worked with in the past. They are very excited to use this new tool.
Q: How has CLUE changed the way you approach your work in the counties you use it in? What has been the impact on your organization?
CLUE helps to solve an important problem for MVLS, finding clients who are eligible for our services instead of relying on them finding us. Many low-income people fail to seek legal assistance because they do not recognize that they have a legal problem or do not know where to go for help. CLUE makes preventative and proactive service delivery possible that reduces the resources we need to spend on outreach.
CLUE has enabled us to offer expungement services strategically where the need exists. We are currently sponsors or co-sponsors for several expungement clinics in Prince George’s County and are planning to do the same in Montgomery County. We plan to have local organizations advertise the website link to the pubic interface that will direct more traffic to the page where people can register for clinics. If the public uses the interface to see if they have any eligible cases, it will help to ensure that clinic attendees are good candidates for expungement. The program will also allow trusted community leaders to approach people individually about expungement help. This type of personal outreach is very useful in making the process run smoothly.
We also plan to have attorneys use the interface program the day of the clinic to double check that we have expunged every possible case. For instance, if the attorney finds nine eligible cases for expungement and the program says there are nine eligible cases, he or she can feel confident they have found them all and then print all the petitions. This can significantly speed up the expungement process as the most time consuming and resource intensive part is getting both the client and the attorney in the same room to sign all of the paperwork.
Q: Do you anticipate that this platform will change the way other legal organizations operate in the field?
We believe CLUE and the new public interface will change how other legal services organizations and community groups address client needs for expungement. The webpage to look up the number of eligible cases for expungement is public and open to any organization doing expungements. As we pursue the next steps of mapping the eligible cases, I believe other organizations will use the tools we are developing to speed up and target their expungement outreach. Additionally, organizations with technical staff will be able to access the database and create custom queries and tools to meet the needs of their organization.
Eventually, the program will tell advocates their specific client’s case numbers that are eligible for expungement. We also plan to build a tool that will allow advocates to type in a case tracking number that the program will then run and return all related cases. Finding related cases is sometimes difficult because of problems like a misspelled name. Missing related cases can cause significant delays and unnecessary court hearings.
Q: What has winning the Technology Innovation Awards meant to your organization? What have you done to communicate about your win and, perhaps, leverage it for other key opportunities?
Winning the Technology Innovation Award has provided MVLS with significant benefits. We broadcast the award on social media and in print media. The award established new credibility for our program as a tech leader in the non-profit legal services community. We have been able to leverage the award to convince other more traditional funders that investing in technology can have a significant impact in providing access to justice. The project has also enabled us to connect with major funders and other stakeholders, such as the Baltimore Sun, Open Society Institute, Annie E. Casey Foundation, Abell Foundation, the Legal Services Corporation, and Department of Justice. These stakeholders are interested in either using the CLUE program or supporting our efforts to improve CLUE.