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Disappearing Act: Minnesota Agencies Create Software to Erase Inaccurate or Obsolete Criminal Records That Can Haunt Citizens

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

  • By: Patrick Noonan
  • Organization: Minnesota Legal Services Coalition
  • Source: Minnesota > ProJusticeMN.org

This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of Law Technology News.  Reprinted with permission.

In Minnesota, almost any involvement with the criminal justice system generates a publicly accessible criminal record. Even if an individual was exonerated, or charges were dropped, details about the incident remain on his or her record. This often creates impediments to housing and employment opportunities, and can haunt an individual for years. A criminal record can serve as an automatic disqualifier for jobs, particularly for jobs regulated by Minnesota's Department of Human Services.

These barriers also contribute to high rates of recidivism among individuals who have served prison sentences, and to higher rates of poverty among anyone with a criminal record — regardless of whether those records were brought about by an actual criminal act.

Adding to the challenge, many eligible candidates for expungement are unlikely to have the resources to pay a private attorney to assist them in the expungement process.

The "Start to Finish" Expungement Tool has helped pro bono attorneys (many with no prior experience in expungement law) generate more than 500 sets of pleadings. The software was created at the Minnesota Legal Services Coalition as part of an ongoing partnership with Volunteer Lawyers Network and the Council on Crime and Justice.

The program was first envisioned by Martha Delaney, deputy director of VLN, and John Freeman, supervising attorney at the MLSC. Delaney was made aware of the need for expungement services by attorney Constance Baillie, who was then with the Fourth Judicial District Self-Help Center in Minneapolis. With the additional help of Minneapolis criminal defense attorney Jon Geffen, of Arenson & Geffen, the team created an expungement forms workshop, where law students (under the supervision of attorneys) drafted petitions. The law students participated through the Minnesota Justice Foundation, which coordinates volunteers from our state's four law schools.

Because expungement petitions are quite long, with much information repeated throughout the forms, gathering the needed information from each client typically took from 90 minutes to more than two hours.

MLSC had developed projects using HotDocs document assembly software and A2J Author, technology created by the Center for Access to Justice & Technology at Chicago-Kent College of Law, to automate templates and interview forms. While these were primarily used by pro se individuals, we were looking for opportunities to develop templates for pro bono attorneys. We wanted to create automated legal forms that would have the greatest potential to benefit our low-income client community.

In the fall of 2008, Delaney was already pondering ways to better use templates to make the Expungement Forms workshop run more efficiently. Freeman approached her to ask if she could think of any forms that might be suitable candidates for automation. Delaney immediately thought of criminal expungement pleadings, and thus the partnership was born.

The first steps were to draft questions and sketch a flowchart that determined which types of pleadings were necessary for individual clients.

Then, we identified more complex functions needed for the software. For example, many clients had multiple criminal records in a number of counties and jurisdictions, and not all incidents would be included in the request for expungement.

Another example: If a client had applied for work with the Department of Human Services, pleadings would need a cover letter requesting that the judge order the DHS to expunge its existing records. If a client could not afford to pay the court fees, we would need to generate an "In Forma Pauperis" court fee waiver request.

Separate, smaller interviews were needed to create the initial request for the client's criminal record and to follow up with a judge in case the expungement order somehow failed to take effect.

The software needed fields for sheriff's offices, police departments, city and county attorneys, and other agencies throughout Minnesota. We added addresses for these agencies to the database so they would automatically populate when the city and county of arrest were entered.

Finally, because the software had the potential to generate substantial amounts of paperwork — including various petitions, affidavits, pleadings, orders and letters — it was important to include a footer that could describe the proper place and purpose of each printed page.

During that same period, we consulted with Mark Haase, vice president, projects and operations for Minnesota's Council on Crime and Justice. Through Haase, CCJ became a key partner in bringing "Start to Finish" to its present day form. In 2009, CCJ attorney Emily Baxter and Christina Szitta, via the Volunteer Lawyers Network, helped identify necessary improvements — most significant the need to modify pleading options, which had only two choices: "favorable" and "unfavorable." While this was sufficient for most clients, it didn't accommodate juvenile dispositions, records that did not result in criminal charges, or first-time drug offenses that have a unique remedy.

The team then assembled an "entry page" that provides a user-friendly but comprehensive "crash course" in expungement statutory and case law for pro bono attorneys who may have no prior expungement experience.

The entry page and the interviews themselves were created and hosted on Minnesota's statewide website for legal services and pro bono attorneys, which is built on a national advocate site web platform created and managed by Pro Bono Net.

I joined the project in 2009 and focused on debugging various features, programming a large expansion to handle the unaddressed dispositions, and adding functions that would allow attorneys to request expungement for multiple criminal records without having to repeat interviews multiple times.

By the spring of 2010, the first version was ready for a test release. Over the course of the year, we gathered feedback for potential improvements. We added four new dispositions related to extended juvenile jurisdiction cases.

On April 20, 2011, we hosted a webinar training to introduce pro bono attorneys to the project; it drew about 250 practicing attorneys.

Start to Finish is now available online at www.projusticemn.org/criminalexpungement for use by pro bono attorneys throughout Minnesota to serve clients in both urban and hard-to-reach rural areas. (Attorneys must sign up and be eligible to access the site.)

Since the launch, we have served approximately 500 clients. We also use the software in clinics, such as those provided by Volunteer Lawyers Network, or other pro bono projects, such as those hosted by attorneys from Dorsey & Whitney and Xcel Energy. Says Dorsey & Whitney partner Michelle Grant, "This clinic would not be possible without the automated expungement tool. The program is extremely easy to use. Clients are extremely grateful for the assistance in navigating a complex process and the work has been fulfilling for the Dorsey and Xcel attorneys involved."

We were honored to receive the 2011 LTN Award for Most Innovative Use of Technology in a Pro Bono Project.

DEVILISH DETAILS

As the saying goes, the devil is in the details. Expungement software must be easy to use, yet nuanced enough to handle data from numerous sources. Examples:

» When clients were seeking jobs with the Department of Human Services, a cover letter would be needed to request that DHS expunge existing records.

» The software needed fields for law enforcement and governmental agencies throughout the state.

» If clients could not afford court fees, the tool needed to generate an "In Forma Pauperis" court fee waiver request.

Patrick Noonan is technology program specialist with the Minnesota Legal Services Coalition, based in St. Paul, Minn. Email: pnoonan@mnlegalservices.org.


 

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